Last year Mark Zuckerberg shocked many observers by spending $21 billion (€19.78 billion) in stock and cash to buy the messaging solution WhatsApp. The deal had many observers scratching their heads because WhatsApp apparently lost $138 million (€129.96 million) in 2014, according to The New York Times Deal Book.
Investors were wondering how such a purchase could add value to Facebook (NASDAQ: FB), a social media company that has surprised a lot of skeptics by actually making a lot of money. Facebook reported a net income of $2.28 billion (€2.15 billion) for the third quarter of 2015 even as Twitter (NYSE: TWTR) admitted to a $556.15 million (€523.76 million) loss for the same period. LinkedIn (NYSE: LNKD) also reported a loss of -$147.82 million (-€138.44 million) for the third quarter.
Naturally, value investors were wondering what Zuckerberg was up to here because it seems to be out of character for him. He has demonstrated that he can build a moneymaking company and generate actual revenue from social media—two accomplishments that seemed impossible to many cynics.
The answer lies in the potential value that WhatsApp could add to Facebook in the future. WhatsApp is now the world’s most popular and successful messaging solution, with 900 million users worldwide, Statista reported. Its user base is also growing at an astounding rate; WhatsApp reported 800 million users in April 2015 and 900 million users in September 2015, an increase of 100 million in just five months.
Purchasing WhatsApp gave Facebook access to the largest social media customer base in the world. When the numbers for Facebook’s two messaging solutions, WhatsApp (900 million) and Facebook Messenger (700 million), are added together, it could give the social network’s messaging solutions 1.6 billion users.
How Will WhatsApp Make Money?
The problem with those numbers is that Facebook has not yet figured out how to make money from messaging. WhatsApp famously refuses to accept advertising, the most obvious revenue source. Its CEO, Jan Koum, has even attacked the whole idea of advertising in his blog. Zuckerberg himself has stated that he will not add advertising to WhatsApp.
Instead, he purchased WhatsApp for its potential future growth, especially the large share of the messaging market it has in some markets. WhatsApp has a 78% share of the messaging market in South Africa, a 75% share in Malaysia and Argentina, a 69% share in India and a 57% share in Germany, according to Statista.
That means any potential revenues from WhatsApp will have to come from other solutions such as payment or ecommerce, two fields in which Facebook lags behind some of its competitors such as Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL), which is better known as Google.
Interestingly enough, Alphabet seems to share Zuckerberg’s faith in messaging’s potential value. Facebook signed a deal to let Google crawl and index its mobile app on November 13, 2015, The Wall Street Journal reported. The Journal did not say what Alphabet plans to do with the data or if WhatsApp is included in the deal.
The deal will also allow some Google content to appear as deep links on the Facebook app. That could open the door to a new advertising platform that could eventually be expanded to WhatsApp.
Like everything else about WhatsApp, this is all about future potential. Alphabet is attempting to develop search solutions for apps and mobile content much as Facebook is attempting to develop a platform that extends into the mobile sphere.
This means that any potential revenue from WhatsApp could be years away. It looks like Zuckerberg could be prepared to lose money from the messaging solution for years to come as he builds market share.
Facebook Makes Money
Naturally, many investors will be reminded of Amazon.com Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN), where Jeff Bezos is prepared is lose money to expand his shopping platform. The big difference is that Facebook makes money elsewhere; it reported a free cash flow of $1.412 billion (€1.33 billion) and $7.355 billion (€6.93 billion) in cash from operations for the third quarter of 2015.
If you are looking for a technology growth stock with a low risk, Facebook is certainly worth a look. It has a lot of growth potential, but it also makes a lot of money right now.
More importantly, Mark Zuckerberg has a proven track record of actually making money from his ventures. He has demonstrated that he can turn social media usage into actual cash. Given that background, it is safe to assume that Facebook could one day generate large amounts of revenue from WhatsApp.
The potential value that Facebook gets from WhatsApp is impressive, but it is the cash that Facebook is generating right now that makes it such an appealing stock. Facebook is that rare creature: a social media company that makes money. That and not the potential from WhatsApp is what investors should focus on.