Twitter vs. Facebook: By The Numbers

The bungled initial public offering (IPO) for Facebook (Nasdaq:FB) was a real eye-opener for any company looking to go public.

Facebook's shares famously plunged soon after they started trading, in large part because the $16 billion offering was so large that it created a great deal of investor confusion as share allocations were misdirected.

Lesson learned. Twitter's imminent IPO will be for just $1 billion, leaving most of the company still in private hands. Look for Twitter to slowly offer more shares in various secondary offerings, but the initial scarcity factor is going to make huge instant profits for some investors.

If you can get a piece of this deal, buy it. But if you plan on buying shares only after they have started trading, you'll be making a big mistake. The relatively few shares means that shares are likely to be wildly overvalued -- at least at the start.

By The Numbers

Of course the $16 billion Facebook IPO and the $1 billion Twitter offering don't reflect their true size. Facebook sports a $119 billion market value and is likely to generate roughly $7.5 billion in revenue this year. Twitter's most recent capital raisings valued the company at $15 billion (up from an estimated $9 billion valuation in 2012), and this Bloomberg article suggests the IPO will value the company at $13 billion, with the after-market post-IPO spike perhaps pushing the valuation north of $20 billion.

More to the point, Twitter is likely to have less than $600 million in revenue this year, which means Facebook is more than 10 times larger. In a moment, we'll take a closer look to see if Twitter has the potential to ever become a major revenue generator. But first, let's look at the company's recent numbers.

Twitter's Impressive Growth
Source: Twitter's S-1 filing

Twitter's recent financial results are as you'd expect: strong revenue growth, rising gross margins, yet stubbornly high operating losses. A remarkable number of tech/social media IPOs in recent years have decided to go public when year-over-year revenue growth starts to decelerate below 100%. That will likely happen in the third and fourth quarter, as Twitter had especially robust growth rates in the second half of 2012 and the comps are starting to get tougher.

Though we have yet to see any financial projections from analysts, Twitter is most likely to keep losing money at least through 2014. (In contrast, Facebook was already profitable for several years before its 2012 IPO.)

Growth And Valuations

The key questions around Twitter: What kind of growth is it capable of, and what kind of value can it sustain?

There have already been some minor grumblings that Twitter's revenue streams (from products such as promoted tweets and promoted accounts) are a little lighter than many had expected. Analysts at Wedbush Morgan, for example, had been anticipating $310 million in revenue for the first half of 2013, but Twitter had just $254 million in revenue.

Twitter faces the same conundrum as Facebook. A large installed base of customers, many of which have used the service for free, will need to be "monetized." To its credit, Facebook delivered a multi-point plan of attack that is now bearing fruit. Facebook boosted revenue 37% in 2012 and is expected to grow even faster 45% rate this year.

Make no mistake: Twitter's installed base of 215 million monthly active users is a powerful advantage. And gone are the days when Twitter was simply used by self-interested navel gazers. These days, Twitter serves as a vital source for information, commentary, and breaking news.

Here's the challenge: Twitter must build an even deeper platform that keeps users engaged, enhances the amount of time spent on the site, and generates meaningful revenue per user. To help in that effort, Twitter hired Jennifer Price in August. She was the former head of media sales at Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) and is expected to help extend the appeal of the platform to TV advertisers and video game users.

As noted earlier, Twitter's deal may be priced at around $13 billion and could open for trading at $20 billion. Let's plug those numbers in and see how they compare with other hot dot-com stocks.

Simply looking at likely 2013 results for Twitter, this stock would be even more richly valued than the market's current most expensive group of dot-com stocks. To be fair, all of these companies are likely to post excellent sales growth in 2014 and 2015, but as I noted earlier this month, it's unclear if these companies will ever deliver the bottom-line results to justify their current valuations.

What To Look For

None of these issues will matter when Twitter launches its much-heralded IPO. An all-star line-up of investment banks are getting a piece of the deal, and they'll be doling out shares to revered clients like Willy Wonka at his chocolate factory. As Twitter is quite likely to do several additional stock offerings over the next year or two, the investment banks are going to be sure that their analysts have very nice things to say once the research reports start to flow.

Yet there's a very good chance that Twitter is not going to be able to live up to the analysts' very lofty expectations, and as we saw with Facebook, the IPO could quickly lose steam as the days and weeks pass by. Extending the Facebook analogy further, shares of Twitter are likely to be much more appealing once the story has lost its IPO glow.

Risks to Consider: As an upside risk, analysts may develop extremely high target prices just so they can garner a great deal of buzz for their firm's future banking efforts with Twitter.

Action to Take --You'll be hearing a lot of analogies between Facebook and Twitter in coming weeks, but you should ignore them. Facebook has steadied itself and cultivated a clear and far-reaching growth strategy. At this point, Twitter just needs to find a way to get to break-even. The company will need to come up with a range of new revenue streams from its current platform before it can become hugely profitable.

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