Facebook at Face Value: How High Will the Bids Go?

Don't even think of telling Mark Zuckerberg what to do.

The 22-year-old founder of Facebook has been tempted by offers to buy him out or take the social networking Web site public since 2004, soon after he launched it out of his dorm room at Harvard.

He's always refused to sell out.

Even when Yahoo! dangled $1 billion in his face in recent weeks, Zuckerberg wouldn't budge, holding out for more money.

In fact, the entrepreneur is so insistent on maintaining control of Facebook that he once fired an underling who dared to suggest that the company issue an IPO, according to Noah Kagan, a product development consultant who left the firm a few months ago.

"Mark is going to wait until the right offer comes along," Kagan said. "It's his baby, and he's adamant about not selling out right away."

After Google's recent $1.6 billion purchase of online video site YouTube, Zuckerberg is even more determined to hold out for at least $1 billion, according to sources close to him.

Compromising What Makes It Unique?

But is it too late to wait for a better offer?

Facebook's traffic is dwarfed by competitor MySpace (14.7 million versus 55.7 million unique visitors in August) and the site has lost some of its exclusive cachet by allowing more users to join.

"If you allow everyone to use it, it is pretty much the same as MySpace," said West Virginia University student Heather Bonecutter in a column she recently wrote for The Daily Athenaeum. "The thing that made Facebook so cool was the exclusivity."

And some industry observers point to the example of Friendster, one of the first social networking sites that rapidly lost ground in the increasingly competitive arena.

When Google offered Friendster founder Jonathan Abrams $30 million a few years ago, he turned them down, holding out for more money, and ended up watching his venture fizzle.

"Take the money. That's my advice," one industry observer said. "The Internet audience is very fickle and keeps changing every few years. There's already buzz that MySpace won't be around in a couple of years. Ask a 12-year-old -- they don't think MySpace is cool anymore."

Window of Opportunity Appears to Be Closing

For now, it appears that Facebook's talks with Yahoo! are at a standstill.

Yahoo!'s stock is near a 52-week low, making CEO Terry Semel more reluctant to splash out money on new investments.

The search-engine giant has a mixed record when it comes to high-profile purchases.

Though its recent $35 million purchase of photo-sharing site Flickr has been a success, Yahoo! was burned by its $4.7 billion purchase in 1999 of Broadcast.com, which soon plummeted in value during the middle of the Internet crash.

But it's clear that other suitors will emerge. Silicon Valley is abuzz with rumors that Google or Microsoft may end up making a bid for Facebook, based on the premise that every major player in Silicon Valley needs to own a social networking Web site.

"Internet markets are winner-take-all markets so you have to pay large entry prices to be No. 1, and you have to be first," said Laura A. Martin, an analyst at Soleil Media Metrics. "What this means is that you can't build. You have to buy."

Facebook: Worth a Billion at Face Value?

In the end, the question becomes this: Is Facebook worth a billion dollars?

The purchase of YouTube seems to be lifting valuations across the board though that sale was unique in that the video site was valued as much for its technology as its brand.

"The YouTube deal is definitely going to push a higher value, above a billion," said Kagan, who suggests that Microsoft is a natural fit for the company.

In August, Zuckerberg signed a deal with Microsoft, which promises to deliver $200 million of ads over the next three years. And the company is approaching $100 million in annual revenues.

In general, it's difficult to determine the value of social networking sites beyond the advertising dollars they attract.

"It's hard to put a number on that type of company," said Richard Peterson, an expert in mergers and acquisitions at Thomson Financial. "The risk is overpaying. It may take longer than sooner to add to the bottom line."

Despite Zuckerberg's independence streak and stubborn attitude, the company may need a buyer more than a buyer needs it.

"He doesn't want to sell out his company," Martin said. "But I don't think that it's the right decision for Facebook to stay independent because they won't survive in this winner-take-all market."

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