I'm the Next Big Tech Startup
To express bewilderment or astonishment from now on, I suggest using the phrase, "WhatsApp?" (with the voice rising on "App"). It's cleaner than "WTF" and everyone will know what I mean.
WhatsApp Inc., for anyone who still has a landline, is the instant-messaging service Facebook Inc. just bought for the mind-boggling sum of $19 billion. Facebook hasn’t been able to launch a popular instant-messaging program of its own so it's paying dearly for someone else’s 450 million users -- who each pay $1 a year for the service. You do the math, but the price tag is more than Facebook raised in its own initial public offering. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg might say, that's a lot of Leaning In.
The deal, according to Bloomberg News, "gives WhatsApp, which has about 50 workers, roughly the same valuation as Gap Inc., with about 136,000 employees, and more than half the market value of microblogging service Twitter Inc."
Neither company has said how WhatsApp would make money beyond the annual fee it charges users. But whatever. On a conference call announcing the deal, Facebook co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said, "No one in the history of the world has ever done something like this."
Does that sound like a bubble about to burst, or what(sApp)?
I'm not a clueless rube still thumbing a Blackberry. I know about Snapchat, Hulu and Instagram. I binge-watch "House of Cards." I tweet. I'm expected to write blog posts like this as often as possible.
Still, I recall the days of yesteryear when I was at that antique Time magazine. I could hold the product in my hand -- two hands actually as the magazine had 80 pages back then. It had advertising by Fortune 500 companies and produced glossy tableaus. It was a presence on thousands of newsstands, and had a valuable franchise in Man of the Year. Its sale for $160 billion in 2000 was supposed to be a dream marriage of old and new media. But Time Warner didn’t buy AOL Inc., which was mostly a figment of someone’s imagination compared to the newsweekly, AOL bought Time. The only thing to be grateful for, we joked at the time, was that we hadn’t become Time-Yahoo (voice rising on the “hoo”). You could see the desperation as Gerald Levin, Time Warner’s chief executive officer, walked on stage in Silicon-Valley-casual only to find AOL's Steve Case wearing a suit and tie.
Today, both companies are shrunken shells of their former selves, the deal a symbol of the reckless search for the Next Big Thing that gripped companies in the midst of the dot-com bubble.
Levin, now the former-CEO, broke a long silence and went on TV on the 10th anniversary of the deal to admit that he’d presided over a catastrophe.
Levin and Case are doing just fine, however, and now, 14 years later, I'm finally getting with the program: For those who want to get in on the next big thing after WhatsApp (so yesterday, literally), I have a small startup to sell you. It operates out of my spare room. I offer unlimited snacks, GoFit Balance Balls, sleep pods and a foosball table. In one corner, we are developing some kind of app. It's all yours for the low price of $18.95 (billion, that is).
WhatsApp with that? Well, we haven't quite decided what it does but we know young people will love it and we only charge $1 for an entire year (three easy payments of 33 cents). After all, there are a lot of 16-year-olds with smart phones out there.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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