Will Facebook be the next Yahoo?January 30, 2012: 9:46 AM ET
Facebook has plenty of challenges as it readies to go public.
By Rob Go, contributor
The entire tech world is waiting with baited breath for the filing of Facebook's IPO next week. I'm excited – the company is an absolute monster and has completely transformed the web.
But, as I've reflected on Facebook this past weekend, I can't help shake a nagging feeling that the company's success feels somehow…fleeting. In some weird ways, Facebook makes me think a bit of Yahoo (YHOO). Not the Yahoo of today, but the Yahoo of the past. And I wonder if Facebook will see a similar decline over the next 10 years.
Here are the major vulnerabilities that I see:
1. Network fragmentation. Facebook's success is largely based on its ability to aggregate the biggest audience on the Internet and understand and monetize that audience. Social networks should be incredibly robust because of network effects. But I really have a hard time believing that Facebook will continue to dominate the pageviews 10 years from now. I think we are already seeing that while Facebook serves as a great repository of one's identity and relationships, deep engagement is starting to happen in more targeted, fragmented communities. Photo sharing is done best on Instagram. Social curation of products on Pinterest. Self-expression on platforms like Tumblr. Sure, Facebook participates in this activity somewhat and could copy these companies, but Swiss Army knives almost never win long term.
2. Not natively mobile. I think the mobile Internet will further accelerate the trend of network fragmentation. Part of Facebook's challenges will be driven by the rules of the app ecosystem that Apple has created. But mostly, Facebook's main challenge is that it was not built in a mobile-first context. We are in (or will soon be) in a mobile-first world, and I think it's hard to expect a large company like Facebook to own that domain in the same way. Just as Google (GOOG) ceded ground to Facebook because it was not natively social (and Yahoo was way, way worse), I can see Facebook ceding ground pretty quickly to products that are built with a mobile, distributed computing context in mind from the beginning.
3. Advertising effectiveness. Facebook's impressive revenue relies largely on advertising. But I think the jury is still out on how transformative it as an advertising medium. Social advertising can be pretty compelling, but intent is pretty low, much like display advertising. I also think that Facebook falls pretty far short currently on its effectiveness as a brand advertising medium. Do you remember any really impactful brand campaigns this year that were deeply integrated with Facebook? I don't, but do remember several that were largely driven through YouTube and Twitter. Finally, Facebook hasn't yet developed a meaningful off-Facebook advertising product that has scale. These are more opportunities than criticisms, but if the company doesn't maintain leadership in these areas, I see it as a further challenge in the face of #1 and #2.
4. Talent exodus? This is a big question mark. I think one of the most incredible things about Google is the company's excellent culture and unique ability to hang on to outstanding talent for a long long time. There were certain management practices that were core to Google that made it an exciting place to work. From the distributed nature of its product teams, to its maniacal focus on valuing engineers, to its free-market-like prioritization of resources and products, to 20% time, etc etc. It means something special to be a Googler. And although some of these practices have evolved and the company has changed, I'd argue that Google will maintain higher calibre talent much longer than other large scale technology leaders like MSFT, Ebay, Yahoo, etc. Will Facebook be able to do the same? I'm really not sure. We'll hear much much more in the coming years about how Facebook is run and how it represents the next step in the evolution of high-performing engineering organizations. But if it can't bottle some of the magic that Google was able to achieve, I think the company will risk sliding slowly from the center of the internet to its periphery.
All this said, it's obviously easy to poke holes at a company from the sidelines. Facebook is an amazing company and will continue to look pretty dominant for at least the next 5 years (much like Yahoo). But I think its ability to remain a great company for 10+ years will depend on how well it navigates the four challenges/opportunities above.
I look forward to the company's public offering and will probably be a buyer… at least the first couple years.
Rob Go is co-founder of NextView Ventures, a seed-stage investment firm focused on Internet-enabled innovation. He previously was with Spark Capital, and blogs over at www.robgo.org