The world's biggest social network is going public, unleashing one of the most lucrative stock offerings of all time and cementing personal information as the default currency of the new Internet boom.
Facebook submitted a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission after market close on Wednesday, a prelude to an initial public offering, likely in the spring. The filing reveals for the first time the inner financial workings of the world's most popular social network, and sets up an IPO that will likely net Facebook more than $5-billion (U.S.) and value the company at somewhere between $75-billion and $100-billion.
"Our mission is to make the world more open and connected," Facebook said in its filing. "We believe that we are at the forefront of enabling faster, easier, and richer communication between people, and that Facebook has become an integral part of many of our users' daily lives."
The filing shows Facebook's revenue jumped to $3.7-billion in 2011 from $777-million in 2009. During the same period, profit climbed to $1-billion from $229-million. The company also added about 1,000 new employees during the past 12 months.
The numbers – both in terms of Facebook's balance sheet and the amount of cash it would raise from going public – easily eclipse those reached by Google in 2004, which at the time set the bar as the biggest U.S. Internet IPO. But like Google, Facebook's revenue predominantly comes from one source: advertising. In 2011, 85 per cent of the company's revenue came from ads, down from 98 per cent two years prior, largely because of the increasing revenue Facebook derives from social games such as FarmVille. But even in that arena, most of Facebook's money comes from one game maker, Zynga (last year, Zynga accounted for 12 per cent of Facebook's revenue, according to the filing).
In the fast-growing but competitive online advertising market, Facebook maintains two key advantages over rivals such as Google. First, its massive user base of more than 845 million active monthly users tends to spend far more time on the site than Google's users spend on the search engine, making it a more captive audience. In addition, Facebook's store of personal information about its users allows it to sell customized "performance-based" ads to its clients. For example, Facebook's filing references an ad purchase by a concert promoter who targeted the ad to a specific geographical region where the concert was to be held, and to Facebook users who had joined the band's fan page on the social network.
But behind the headline numbers, Facebook's filings reveal a company that, at best, is reluctantly embracing Wall Street. In a letter from founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old states that "Facebook was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission – to make the world more open and connected."
The mission statement bares many similarities to the one issued by Google's founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 2004, when the search went public (that letter featured the now-famous company motto: "Don't be evil").
Indeed, it is likely that Mr. Zuckerberg, who will still control the majority of the company's voting shares after it goes public, would have rather avoided this day for a while longer. However, the company has slowly grown to have almost 500 investors – a limit that would force Facebook, under U.S. law, to begin disclosing financial information. In essence, Facebook would have taken on all the responsibilities of being a public company, with few of the benefits.
"We're going public for our employees and our investors," Mr. Zuckerberg wrote. "We made a commitment to them when we gave them equity that we'd work hard to make it worth a lot and make it liquid, and this IPO is fulfilling our commitment."