What We've Learned From Our Facebook Investment

Winston Churchill once said of Clement Attlee that he was "a very modest man, who had much to be modest about."

Well, we've always been very modest about our investing abilities, and our Facebook (Nasdaq: FB  ) investment has only reinforced that view.

Right after the IPO, we made two small investments in Facebook, one in May and the other in June. Both positions are now down around 38% since we took them. It's been painful and somewhat embarrassing to watch the shares decline so sharply in such a short period of time. We thought it might be helpful (and therapeutic) to share what we've learned so far by having some skin in the game. Here are three insights from the experience so far:

1. The negativity surrounding this company is bigger than we expected. We got a taste of the latent hostility toward Facebook in the week following the IPO. On Twitter, the financial media was tweeting with relish about each downtick of the share price. The investing blog Abnormal Returns refers to this as Facebook Schadenfreude, and concludes that the financial press will "continue to take shots at Zuckerberg et al so long as the stock continues to sink."

Aswath Damodaran, professor of finance at the Stern School of Business at NYU, advises that this is the nature of momentum investing, where negative surprises can lead to "catastrophic drops." In a recent post, Damodaran writes that "markets know no fury to match that of momentum investors scorned, and these investors turn with a vengeance on the companies that disappoint them."

The big lesson here is that it's been very difficult to retain our long-term focus on the quality of the business while the share price has been plummeting and the negativity chorus becomes louder and louder. As the great investor Seth Klarman has said, "sometimes buying early on the way down looks like being wrong, but it isn't." For example we bought shares of solid-state memory designer Fusion-io (Nasdaq: FIO  ) as its stock price fell. The company's financial performance and business outlook eventually improved, and now the shares are up considerably.

We think Facebook is offering us a similar opportunity, though it hasn't always felt that way over the past several months.

2. Despite the 50% drop since the IPO, the business hasn't changed. Damodaran recently took a second look at Facebook, and his takeaway is that the business really hasn't changed since the IPO, though he did adjust his estimate of intrinsic value from $27 to $23.94.

We agree that Facebook's business remains pretty much the same, unlike Groupon (Nasdaq: GRPN  ) and Zynga (Nasdaq: ZNGA  ) , which have seen their businesses deteriorate significantly since their IPOs. In fact, you could argue that Facebook is even stronger now since its IPO. The company began using sponsored stories in February, which amount to $1 million in revenue a day. And half of that comes from mobile -- an area where the company is now completely focused.

Ultimately, we remain intrigued by the power of that near 1 billion user base. Recently, we learned that Glassdoor.com, a site that provides information on jobs and companies, was able to grow its own user base from 1.4 million to over 10 million during the past year by partnering with Facebook. That's a remarkable result, and shows what a platform with 14% of the world's population can do.

3. There's extraordinary pressure facing this company right now. The extreme negativity surrounding this company could adversely affect the business, and that's something we'll be keeping an eye on. Zuckerberg admitted to his colleagues that watching the share price plummet has been very painful for him. And Peter Thiel's decision to unload the vast majority of his Facebook shares couldn't have come at a worse time for the company.

The danger here is that Zuckerberg will feel so much pressure to increase revenue growth that he'll harm the user experience, thereby jeopardizing the long-term focus of the company. And with many folks in the financial press calling for him to step down as CEO, the pressure to do something drastic right now must feel very powerful.

Our big lesson from investing in Facebook so far is that it's a lot easier to talk about having a long-term outlook than it is to actually be long-term day in and day out. Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) might be the perfect model for Facebook to consider in this regard. In 1997, Amazon's CEO, Jeff Bezos, wrote a manifesto in which he declared, "We are working to build something important, something that matters to our customers, something that we can tell our grandchildren about."

We hope Facebook can demonstrate a similar commitment to the long term. If it can, then we'll remain long-term investors.

What's next?
Our original investing strategy was to take an initial nibble at Facebook shares with the intention of filling out the position eventually. So, will we be buying more shares?

Yes, we still intend to. We are somewhat queasy, to be perfectly honest, about the lock-up schedule for Facebook shares this coming fall. There will be even more shares becoming available, and this will likely add downward pressure to the stock price. That said, we think $18 or $19 represents a pretty good price for these shares right now, so we may purchase a relatively small stake shortly. As Zuckerberg himself said in the company's introduction to its S-1 filing, sometimes "the riskiest thing is to take no risks."

Not everyone at The Motley Fool is quite as bullish on Facebook as we are, however. In the latest premium report compiled by our analyst team, you'll be able to consider the pros and cons of buying shares of the company. You can access this deep-dive report by clicking here.

John Reeves does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. David Meier does not own shares in any of the companies mentioned. You can follow them on Twitter @TenBaggers.

The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Facebook and Amazon.com. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.


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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2012, at 5:38 PM, hilsonvalli wrote:

    Valuation! Valuation is the reason FB was ridiculously overpriced at the IPO. Couldn't you find someone to lend you a calculator?

    How can you write all this hype and not mention the valuation _once_. FB would have to grow at its current (declining) rate for years to justify where it's trading now. Dead money for a long time, and adding more is good money after bad. That's foolish, not Foolish.

  • Report this Comment On August 28, 2012, at 5:38 PM, Lindq123 wrote:

    It is one thing to make a bad entry into a trade. We've all done that.

    But what is completely inexcusable is to enter a trade without a stop loss.

    Had you had a stop in place, you would now be looking at the possibility of getting into FB at a much better price.

    Or, putting the money into a better trade or investment.

    Using a stop, even if you take the loss, at least gives you some choices.

    Shame on you, Fools.

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