Nancy Miller on the Facebook IPO: Part Four

It’s not all that often that a era-defining initial public offering comes along. In the next couple of weeks Facebook is set to go public amidst a great deal of talk that there is a “bubble” in Silicon Valley. The Facebook story is more than the question of whether you should try to get in on the IPO. It really puts a stamp on the Web 2.0. Veteran journalist Nancy Miller is covering the Facebook story in depth via her e-book The Facebook IPO Primer which also happened to get a positive review from David Merkel at the Aleph Blog.

Admittedly the vast majority of individuals and institutions who put in for shares in the Facebook ($FB) IPO will likely get shut out, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t lessons to be learned along the way. With the start of the Facebook road show next week and the company setting an initial price range I had asked Nancy a series of questions about the Facebook and its coming offering. You can also read part one, part two and part three our discussion. With no further ado here is the fourth and final part of our Q&A.

AR: The future isn’t guaranteed to Facebook. One need only look at the rise and fall of Myspace. What is the biggest risk to Facebook: Is it privacy concerns, becoming too popular that they are no longer cool or something else entirely?

NM: I feel like saying yes, yes, and yes to each of those scenarios. They are all dangers.

I would say Facebook faces two dangers – one particular to its business and the second connected to the stock market.

Facebook wasn’t the first company to create a social media company. But it’s the one that got it right. Myspace, friendster, Bebo – the list of wannabes and has-beens is long. Facebook captured the desire to connect at just the right moment and in just the right way.

We also know that trends are changing so fast it’s had to know whether 901 milion users and an army of data centers makes Facebook’s lead in social media so deep that it is the de facto social media utility for the world. Or are its roots just planted in changing sands?  Does Facebook fit as neatly in your pocket as on a desktop?

We are in an age of disruption. And the disruption is coming at us faster and faster. The Hacker Way, the core culture at Facebook, is predicated on change. But does that mean it won’t fall to some other change beyond its borders?  Other networks are sprouting that emphasize better privacy mechanisms. Could they overtake Facebook?

Facebook is part of a huge cultural shift in how we interact with one another. Our sense of privacy is evolving.  When it comes to advertising, users could decide that they like targeted ads. If you’re a sports fan, why get an ad targeted to ballet? Or users could decide that profiling is way too creepy and go into their browsers and turn off the ads entirely. Well, that would be interesting.

Arcstone Equity suggests that Facebook could turn its credits system into a huge virtual source of currency that would rival PayPal.  Facebook is reportedly talking about a phone as well; and its hookup with Microsoft Bing could mean that its search function will get a major do-over. It certainly needs it.

What’s alarming as an investor is that companies don’t seem to get much room to make mistakes or to experiment. Facebook is a mature company but it is in an arena where change is the defining agent.  I even wonder if it should be public. Or, it would be better if it was accorded a more modest stock valuation so every breath it takes wouldn’t be so important.

It’s also alarming how quickly sentiment can change but also gets to the heart of what I was really writing about in my ebook, The Facebook IPO Primer: numbers interpretation is in large measure a function of art, emotion and a little science. One set of analysts can look at a set of numbers and say they are robust and another can look at them and say, oh-oh.  Facebook is an extraordinary prism – it refracts the hopes, dreams, and fears that so many people have invested in both the company itself and information technology. The first earnings report shook up a lot of people. Juggernauts aren’t supposed to stumble.  But isn’t that standard a little high?

Let’s just remember Netscape for one moment. It was a great company. Netscape made the Internet accessible to people like me or my mother. Before that , it was the provenance of computer geeks.  In 1995 technology expert and astronomer Clifford Stoll wrote a story for Newsweek in which he mocked the idea that we would read newspapers online or shop.  Netscape changed all that. But Netscape was a company that didn’t have any real revenues or profits. Microsoft came in with Internet Explorer and that was that for Netscape.

We’ve learned a lot about launching tech companies since then – especially after the horrible tech bubble  at the turn of the new millennium. I don’t think we are in a bubble now, but I do think investors are unforgiving. And on top of that info tech users are fickle. These are revolutionary times when it comes to media.  All I can say with certainty is to expect the unexpected.

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Thanks to Nancy for participating in our Q&A.  For more on the Facebook IPO check out Nancy’s e-book.

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