Facebook Snaps a $1-Billion Photo

Posted by Alex Daley- Casey Research

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By Alex Daley, Chief Technology Investment Strategist

“What made Instagram worth $1 billion to Facebook?”

When asked this question recently, I responded with an immediate, “Nothing.”

I’m not usually so terse or emphatic with my answers, as any longtime reader knows. But in this case, there really was nothing inherently valuable inside Instagram that made them worth the unbelievable sum Facebook agreed to pay. Yet they did it anyway. Clearly, there’s something missing from a traditional valuation analysis here.

That missing piece is what Instagram could have become in the hands of a competitor or even on its own, had Facebook not gone ahead with the marriage. Nearing its IPO, Facebook was willing to overpay in order to quash any potential risks that Instagram posed, both to the company’s reputation and its content stream.

Instagram by the Numbers

On the surface, Instagram might look like small potatoes. It has only one product: an application for smartphones that can take square, Polaroid-style throwback images, run them through a few cool filters to make them look snazzy, and share them with other users. Even though it has some sharing capability built into its own app, the overwhelming majority of photos are instead posted to Facebook (or Twitter or Posterous or other social network) with the app’s simple integration.

There is no magical computer science involved. The app – minus some intricacies that allowed it to scale to millions of users without buckling under its own weight – is simple enough that most any solid mobile developer could have thrown it together. This is not to dismiss the hard work the twelve-person company put into it – I am sure many late nights were spent on the finer details, squashing bugs, and the like – but it’s not exactly a fighter-jet simulator or climatology model. Facebook obviously didn’t want the company for its cutting-edge patents, code, or other intellectual property.

So maybe it had to do with the user base? True, the application is insanely popular, having been downloaded more than 30 million times according to the App Store statistics from Apple, and another 5 million on Android. (Of course, Apple and Google have it in their best interests to overcount those users, by including updates, reinstalls, upgraded phones, etc. But it is the best proxy we have, and we can reasonably assume Instagram still had tens of millions of users.) Plus, it was named “application of the year” by Apple for 2011, which was bound to further boost its appeal and draw in new users.

But Facebook already counts 850 million registered users, according to its most recent press releases. Even adding 30 million to that number would cause barely a ripple. And given that the most popular use of the application is to upload to your existing Facebook account, we doubt that it will bring many, if any, new users to Facebook. This was not about adding instant market share.

Nor did the two-year-old Instagram bring much in the way of revenue to the table. In fact, the company has no revenue stream at all; it was living off of $7 million in venture capital funds it managed to raise on the back of its early success, having garnered 1.75 million downloads just four months after its launch. (The product, by the way, was built on just $500,000 in seed funding pre-launch.)

No revenue, little money in the bank… you might think a company like that would come cheap. That instead, Facebook believed it justified a $1-billion pricetag tells us that Facebook values the company for something more than Instagram’s application, audience, or earnings.