Facebook´s acquisition of WhatsApp for about 19 billion (!) is the biggest deal ever for venture-capital-backed startup. As far as the money goes, it is naturally mind-boggling amount of cash but strategically I am trying to get my head around this. Four big questions came to my mind, when analyzing the acquisition:
1. What kind of ecosystem Facebook is building?
Currently Facebook is owner of three really strong (and separate) digital platforms: Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp. Despite launching the ad units in Instagram, the photo platform has been relatively autonomous regarding Facebook. Apparently they will continue similar approach with WhatsApp and even more so as there will be no ads (in foreseeable future) in WhatsApp. See more in question 2 on that matter.
If we compare to Google, who builds their entire product offering under strong Google branding and synergies, Facebook currently resembles more of a venture capitalist and having quite separate and independent entities. Either approach is right or wrong, but at least currently Facebook ecosystem seems quite disjointed compared to the Google one. But maybe they have a bigger plan intact: see question 4.
2. How will Facebook monetize WhatsApp?
On the investor call Facebook mentioned that there would be no ads on WhatsApp and they are mainly concentrating on growth in the near future. Currently WhatsApp is free for one year and then you pay 0.99 for every additional year (and not even in all the markets). Current business model is not exactly breaking the bank as it has quite limited growth opportunities, but compared to many other social ventures coming from Silicon Valley it is already profitable. From monetization standpoint it is interesting opportunity for Facebook to enter also to the subscription business and test it first with WhatsApp before rolling it to wider.
3. Was it strategically right decision?
Initially buying WhatsApp seemed a rather uninspiring and unsurprising act. More forward-looking would have been buying some emerging mobile instant messaging platform from Asia (Line, KakaoTalk, etc.). Especially as Facebook mentioned that the reach in emerging markets was one of the core reasons for acquiring WhatsApp. Asian mobile instant messaging platforms would have been better fit also to current Facebook monetization strategy as these platforms are currently more open to advertising as well? Cynical view of the strategic importance of the buy was that as the main Facebook platform loses steam the growth and engagement had to be bought to please the investors.
4. Will there be Facebook Premium in the future?
How much would you pay for your Facebook account?
It might be that the goal of buying Instagram and WhatsApp is eventually to have capabilities to introduce Facebook Premium. This social network would add the best of the Facebook ecosystem and provide value on certain subscription fee. I have been toying around with that idea for a while, but currently it seems more reality than ever before. I have been quite disappointed of the unimaginative monetization strategies Facebook has had (overtly media-focused) and venturing to subscription models without endangering the crown jewel of free Facebook seems lucrative and interesting option.
The reaction from the markets to the acquisition was slightly disappointed and Facebook stock plunged slightly.