Facebook CEO Sees Bold Moves as Revenue Beats, Shares Rise

Facebook 1Q Sales, Profit Beat Analysts' Estimates
  • Proposed new share class to give CEO more freedom for big bets
  • Zuckerberg seeks to keep control, sees 'more bold moves ahead'

Facebook Inc.’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg picked a good time to ask for more freedom.

The company reported sales and profit that blew past analysts’ estimates, fueled by businesses spending more to advertise in videos on its main mobile app. It was the latest in a string of strong earnings that have built up investors’ confidence in the company’s future. They responded by bidding up the shares as much as 11 percent Thursday, rising to the highest they’ve ever been since the 2012 initial public offering.

Mark Zuckerberg
Mark Zuckerberg
Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

The leader of the world’s largest social network took the opportunity to propose a new class of stock, subject to shareholder approval, that will help him maintain control and ensure he has the ability to keep spending on future technology, even as he gives his own shares away for philanthropic initiatives like seeking cures for disease.

Facebook’s first-quarter revenue, which grew 52 percent to $5.38 billion, sent the stock surging toward a record in part because most of the company’s money is still made by one property -- the main social network, which now has 1.65 billion users. Facebook has yet to try to generate sales from newer chat applications like WhatsApp, which has 1 billion users, and Messenger, which has 900 million. Instagram, the photo-sharing app that opened up to advertising globally last year, is still early in its financial potential, the company said.

The shares rose 10 percent to $119.85 at 10:01 a.m. in New York, bringing the gains for this year to 15 percent.

’Bold Moves’

Meanwhile, Zuckerberg is investing in other, more ambitious bets, including virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

"I see more bold moves ahead of us than behind us,” Zuckerberg said. With the new stock structure, “I’ll be able to keep founder control of Facebook so we can continue to build for the long term.”

Profit excluding some items was 77 cents per share, the company said Wednesday in a statement, compared with the 63-cent average analyst estimate compiled by Bloomberg. Facebook is benefiting by owning some of the more popular mobile applications, with the average user spending 50 minutes a day on its properties, excluding WhatsApp, the company said.

With Instagram and video, “they’ve got these two huge tailwinds to their business,” Mark Mahaney, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets, said before the results. “But if you own Facebook stock you’re not buying it now because of what they can do with video ads or Instagram, you’re buying it because of the potential with their long-term bets like virtual reality.”

Staying involved

The new stock structure, if approved, will encourage Zuckerberg to remain involved in a leadership role at Facebook, even after pledging to give away most of his stock, the company said in a regulatory filing.

Facebook’s main competitor, Alphabet Inc., issued a special share class in 2014 that gives Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin a similar mix of company control and freedom to back risky new technologies. While some of Alphabet’s new bets have stumbled, Facebook must keep up to attract talented engineers capable of inventing new products and businesses.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to make more big bets on future technology, following rival Alphabet which has been spending heavily on moonshots in recent years.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to make more big bets on future technology, following rival Alphabet which has been spending heavily on moonshots in recent years.

"A large part of Facebook’s success is due to Mark’s leadership and this proposal will allow us to maintain that founder-led approach that has served our shareholders well," Chief Financial Officer David Wehner said in an interview.

Existing businesses

The strong performance of Facebook’s existing and emerging businesses is keeping most investors happy for now. Adding ads to Instagram is expected to drive $1.53 billion in revenue this year, or 15 percent of the company’s ad sales, according to eMarketer. Facebook is expected to take about 18 percent of the $102.5 billion mobile advertising market this year, eMarketer said. The company has also been investing in live video streaming and media content, aiming to make Facebook more of a place to find out what’s going on right now.

The company reported $1.51 billion in first-quarter net income, or 52 cents a share, almost triple what it made in the same period a year earlier.

CFO Wehner said the main drivers of Facebook’s first-quarter results were video and mobile ads on the company’s main Facebook app. He described Instagram as "still early."

Much of Zuckerberg’s attention these days is focused on longer-term initiatives. At a developer conference earlier this month, he laid out a 10-year vision. In the next couple years, he said, Facebook’s messaging products are going to usher in an age of talking to businesses through artificially intelligent bots, replacing the need to call them or download their app. Meanwhile, Facebook will work toward a future where virtual reality is at the center of social interactions, allowing people to hang out with anyone in the world via an Oculus headset and feel a sense of presence. 

Longer term, Facebook is working on connecting the rest of the world to the Internet using a mix of radio technology, lasers and drones, expanding the number of people who can use Facebook’s services.

Not all the company’s newer initiatives are going smoothly. Those who pre-ordered Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets this year complained of shipping delays. Attempts to spread the Internet through a "free basics" application in India were blocked by the government, which said the app violated net neutrality rules.

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