After years of manic growth, Facebook Inc. is about to find out what its dominance in the emerging world of social media is worth to the stock market.
The eight-year-old company, which accounts for one out of every seven minutes the world spends online, is expected to file paperwork with U.S. regulators as early as Wednesday for an initial public offering worth between $5-billion (U.S.) and $10-billion. The deal, which would put the total value of the company at $75-billion to $100-billion, will be the largest IPO in Internet history and among the top ten ever in the United States.
The widely anticipated filings will reveal Facebook's bottom line and open a window on what social media is actually worth. Until now, the company's revenue, earnings and other financial data have been private. Its IPO documents will set a benchmark for the value of other social networking companies and could provide clues about where the social networker is headed next.
"The question is just how big will it be," said David Sacks, an early investor in Facebook and founder and chief executive officer of Yammer Inc., a social networking site for corporations.
Mr. Sacks, who still holds his stake in Facebook, says the company could "double its revenue overnight" if management decided to let third parties tap into its advertising system, allowing them to display ads suited to their audience's interests.
There's also a strong possibility Facebook will launch a social search engine to mine the wealth of personal data that the company has acquired on its 800 million users, he added.
The growing popularity of social media has vaulted what started as Mark Zuckerberg's dorm room project at Harvard University into the third largest web property in the world, behind Google and Microsoft-controlled sites.
What's not clear to investors at this point is whether Facebook makes money yet, and how profitable its business model could prove.
Facebook generated about $4.3-billion in revenue last year, according to estimates from the research firm eMarketer, with advertising accounting for nearly 90 per cent of that amount. This year, the company should post revenue of nearly $6-billion, eMarketer forecasts.
Investors have been longing to get a stake in the biggest trend hitting the Internet since Google Inc. brought its powerful search algorithms and lucrative advertising model to the markets in 2004.
"The social networking king is an advertiser's dream, accessing the intimate social behaviour of one in every 10 people in the world," says Kathleen Smith, principal of IPO investment adviser Renaissance Capital.
Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and dozens of mutual funds from T. Rowe Price Group to Fidelity Investments, have already bought into Facebook through private deals and secondary markets unavailable to most investors.
Other investors will be watching closely to see how Facebook is cashing in on its leadership position in social media. The company increased its share of the U.S. market for online banner advertisements, also known as display ads, to 28 per cent last year, up from 21 per cent market share in 2010, according to comScore. That far exceeded second-placed Yahoo Inc. at 12 per cent, and Microsoft and Google at 4 per cent each.
Part of Facebook's challenge is to convince advertisers of the benefits of social network advertising over display ads and search ads. That may include selling ideas such as using fan pages and friends' "likes" and "dislikes" to build customized ads.
But whatever game plan Facebook builds, the market will soon be much more vocal about its own likes and dislikes of the company's strategy and its financial performance.
Shares of the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company will likely debut in May, following the SEC's review of the file, which normally takes three to four months.