Facebook’s WhatsApp Deal Values Users Over Money

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Crank up some grunge, put on your best Tommy Hilfiger outfit, and prepare for the television return of "Murphy Brown." The '90s are back!

With its $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB  ) continues a revival of the 1990s practice of buying companies based on user base and raw potential rather than revenue. This practice of buying eyeballs instead of dollars didn't work out so well the first time around, but are there reasons to believe things could be different this time?

Three big deals, limited revenue

WhatsApp does not sell ads and only derives revenue from charging users $1 per year, with the first year free. That doesn't seem to bother Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who on a conference call about the sale, said Facebook, "is not looking to drive revenue from WhatsApp in the near term, instead focusing on growth," CNN Money reported.

This deal mirrors Yahoo's (NASDAQ: YHOO  ) recent $1.1 billion purchase of Tumblr, which at the time of the deal had 117 million users but only $14 million in revenue, according to Forbes. At least Tumblr had revenue. When Facebook bought photo site Instagram for $1 billion, NPR host Audie Cornish described the deal as such: "Not only does Instagram have no profits, it has no revenue. That's right. It brings in no money at all."

A history lesson

The '90s was a magical time when venture capitalists were throwing money at ideas -- seemingly any ideas -- for Internet companies. If you had a catchy URL, a loft space with a Foosball table, and a dream, it seemed like someone would give you millions.

And with that money, a lot of fabulous companies that drew millions of users were created. The one catch was nobody had figured out how to make revenue of those users. It was a giant party with free beer, great food, and all the cool people, but nobody had considered how to settle up the tab at the end of the night.

With the exception of companies such as Yahoo!,  (NASDAQ: AMZN  ) , and Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) -- most Internet companies went the way of '90s hitmakers En Vogue. Sure, they might still be around in a vague sense, but if they still exist, it's as a sad shadow of what they once were. Still, as "Free Your Mind" and "My Lovin' (You're Never Gonna Get It)" once rode high on the Billboard charts, many of these failed .coms commanded a huge audience … and tricked some other company into buying them.

'90s .com failures (just a sampling)

In 1999, Excite was riding so high it was offered the chance to buy the then-fledgling Google for $750,000, according to Minyanville, but then CEO George Bell passed. Soon thereafter the now-also-defunct, @Home (which sold Internet access and actually had revenue) purchased Excite -- which had lots of brands, users, and publicity, but no profit, for $7.2 billion, according to CNet. By 2001, the newly christened Excite@Home was bankrupt.

Another typical '90s failed purchase was Yahoo! buying Geocities for $3.7 billion. At the time, Geocities was the third most visited site on the web, but despite all those users, it had posted a loss of $8.4 million in the quarter before Yahoo bought it, according to CNN Money. Geocities languished under the Yahoo! brand for years, but it was done as a major player almost from the moment of the acquisition. It was finally shuttered in 2009.

Why it's different now

In the '90s investors were buying stock in companies with limited revenue (and limited plans to make any) and companies were snapping up websites that came with big audiences and small revenues. A few of those (Yahoo! being the prime example) had an actual business model that allowed it to survive these unsuccessful purchases. Most, however, like @Home, were shaky business models themselves and, not surprisingly, combining two businesses with no revenue does not make a healthier whole.

Facebook, however (and the new Marissa Mayer-led Yahoo! to a lesser extent) are not simply giddy '90s companies flush with other people's money buying companies based solely on eyeballs. Facebook is one of the few companies in the world that can spend $19 billion ($20 billion if you add in Instagram) and simply wait to figure out monetization.

With roughly $10 billion cash on hand before the WhatsApp deal (which was for $12 billion in stock and $4 billion in cash) and a healthy, profitable model, Facebook is not going to go out of business before it can figure out how to make money with its acquisitions. Zuckerberg and company may be playing a '90s game of buying up eyeballs, but they have already shown through their ability to figure out Facebook's once-broken mobile revenue model that the can play in the real world too.

While, of course, we all hope pogs, baggy jeans, and Boyz II Men make a comeback, that seems highly unlikely. Facebook (and Yahoo!) figuring out how to make money from their '90s-style shopping spree seems a lot more probable.

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Daniel B. Kline

Daniel B. Kline is an accomplished writer and editor who has worked for the Microsoft's Finance app and The Boston Globe, where he wrote for the paper and ran the business desk. His latest book "Worst Ideas Ever" (Skyhorse) can be purchased at bookstores everywhere.

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