Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) saw dramatic growth over the last decade because it was offering a simple tool to stay connected with friends. It started out almost exactly 10 years ago doing that one thing well, and it still does it well. Facebook had the first-mover advantage, and that's the most important thing for Internet businesses. It was new, exciting, and interesting, which made it cool. Now it's generating more than $1 per share in free cash flow per year, which is still pretty cool -- just in a different way.
Over the hill at 10?
At 10 years old, Facebook isn't even a teenager, but in Silicon Valley terms, it's over the hill. Young people don't go to the site to communicate with their friends as often, preferring Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) and Instagram, according to many publications. A Pew release titled "Teens Haven't Abandoned Facebook (Yet)" even offers a killer quote from one of the respondents to its survey: "Once you create a Twitter and an Instagram account, then you'll just kind of forget about Facebook." Twitter's information streams are open to everyone, and it's anonymous, which makes it a better place to rant than a virtual room that your friends, family, and even possibly future employers can visit.
All of this may be true, but Facebook was first, and that allowed the company to build up a cheap asset of very personal subscriber information. Since Facebook was the only option five years ago, an unprecedented explosion of new subscribers made information they care about available to their friends. This information is the asset that Facebook sells to advertisers. Even if you stop visiting the site, it owns that information. Unless people, en masse, stop using Facebook, there will be value in advertising through the platform.
Tweens continue to have Facebook accounts, even if they aren't used as much
Even though Facebook may not be the most popular messaging site with younger people, they still use it. Why? Because that's where the herd is. It's true that the quotes making headlines are vocal about a clear preference for Twitter and Instagram over Facebook. Keep it in context though, this is a small subset of high value users that don't necessarily correlate to profits. Even more importantly, these same people do use Facebook for consuming data, just not posting it. It's possible that they use it out of necessity rather than preference, but that may actually be better in a way.
The bottom line for investors is the cash flow
Investors might want to think about the company the same way that kids think about the service, its something people need whether they want it or not. Partly because of this customer lock in, free cash flow jumped to $2.8 billion in 2013, from $37 million in 2012. You may be rubbing your eyes but yes, the company went from virtually 0 to over $2.8 billion in 12 months. There aren't many companies that can do that. Even if this growth isn't sustainable, if the stream is, investors will be rewarded in time.
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David Eller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Facebook and Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.