Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

This week is notable for IPO anniversaries. Jeff Bezos took Amazon public 20 years ago. And five years ago Thursday, Facebook shares started trading for the first time.

Just like Amazon, Facebook was hardly a surefire success.

Even before the trading debut, doubters were already saying Facebook Inc. would prove as fleeting as MySpace. Just before it went public, Facebook whispered to some analysts that it was struggling more than expected to make money from surging social network use on smartphones. Six weeks before the IPO, Mark Zuckerberg courted controversy by splurging $1 billion on Instagram, a startup with zero revenue and about a dozen employees. Technical glitches marred the first trading day. 

The IPO was a belly flop. 

The Abyss
For more than 14 months after Facebook's much-hyped IPO, the company's shares traded below their $38 initial public offering price
Source: Bloomberg

The problems fueled the narrative that Facebook was an overvalued has-been with overmatched management. Facebook shares traded below the IPO price for more than 14 months after its first day of trading. The low point was September 2012, when Facebook's share price hit $17.55 -- less than half the company's $38 IPO price. Zuckerberg had wiped out about $40 billion in stock market value in his first four months leading a public company.

You know how this story turned out. Facebook is now the world's fifth-most-valuable company by market value. Its annual revenue climbed from $5 billion to more than $30 billion. Along with Google, Facebook dominates the sale of online advertisements, and it's so powerful that the company is criticized for potentially influencing elections.

Last Laugh
Facebook's market value has soared by $350 billion since the company's IPO five years ago
Source: Bloomberg

What lessons can we learn? First, next time you find yourself doubting Zuckerberg, remember that he has earned the benefit of the doubt. And second, great companies are made, not born. There was nothing preordained about Facebook's rise to a global powerhouse, but rather it was a series of smart decisions large and small.

The big one was how to deal with smartphones, which for a while looked like doom for Facebook. The company -- at the same time it was going public -- was essentially in the middle of an overhaul of its entire business model. The company ditched the PC-centric ads that were generating $4 billion to $5 billion in annual revenue and instead devoted itself to new ads that capitalized on people scrolling Facebook on their phones.

Path to Greatness
Facebook's revenue this year is on track to be nearly eight times its sales in 2012, the first year the company was public
Source: Bloomberg

It's worth looking back at this September 2012 interview with Zuckerberg, who discussed the company's strategy change.

"It's easy for a lot of folks ... to really underestimate how fundamentally good mobile is for us," he said. "There are going to be more users, each user is going to spend more time, and per amount of time that they spend we're going to be making more money than we are on desktop."

I was there, and I thought he was too confident in Facebook's ability to shift its business model. Surprise: I am not smarter than Mark Zuckerberg. Commercials mixed into the smartphone news feed was the best advertising idea since Google's web search. Facebook in early 2012 generated 3 percent of its advertising revenue from mobile. Now it's 85 percent.

Mobile Mojo
Mobile advertising was Facebook's biggest weakness at its 2012 IPO. But within 18 months, Facebook started to generate a majority of its advertising revenue from mobile phones.
Source: Facebook

Zuckerberg has powered through doubts before and since. The introduction of the Facebook "news feed" in 2006 was a big controversy, and it became a model for how many digital hangouts are organized. Instagram may be the best technology industry acquisition of the last decade.

Every Amazon and Facebook that proved the doubters wrong must give solace to companies like Snap, which is having a tough start as a public company. Of course, for every Facebook that overcame serious crises, there are many companies that never did. Let me know if you figure out how to tell one from the other.

A version of this column originally appeared in Bloomberg's Fully Charged technology newsletter. You can sign up here

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net