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Don't Expect Facebook's WhatsApp to Make Any Real Money for Years

Show me the money -- later.

Adam Tow

Facebook paid a lot of money for WhatsApp. It wasn’t because of what’s in the company’s coffers — at least, not right now.

But it is, however, about the numbers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg conceded that buying the mobile messaging company for such a large price was more about its staggering user growth numbers and potential for expansion than WhatsApp’s immediate capacity for making money.

In fact, that’s exactly what the company will be focused on over the next five years, Zuckerberg said in an interview at the Mobile World Congress conference in Barcelona, Spain, on Monday.

“By being a part of Facebook, it makes it so that [WhatsApp] can focus for the next five years or so purely on connecting more people,” Zuckerberg said. Were Facebook not to have acquired WhatsApp, he continued, the pressure would have increased on WhatsApp CEO Koum to eventually “focus more on revenue models” and monetization over the near term, rather than on the company’s continued growth.

That includes the expansion of new features, including Koum’s announcement on Monday that WhatsApp users will soon be able to make voice calls on iOS and Android.

This may make Facebook investors nervous. The company spent 35 percent of its cash on hand on WhatsApp, far and away the biggest buy for Facebook in its 10-year history. One might assume that would provide the impetus to start ramping up WhatsApp’s revenue posthaste.

That’s hardly what Zuckerberg cares about, at least in the near term. And he thinks WhatsApp has the capacity to make even more money than Facebook ended up spending on it.

“I think by itself, WhatsApp is worth more than $19 billion. It’s hard to make that case today because they have so little revenue, but look at the messaging apps already out there,” Zuckerberg said, pointing to existing competitors like KakaoTalk, WeChat and Line, which are already monetizing (in some cases, quite successfully).

Zuckerberg subscribes to a familiar line of Silicon Valley thinking: Rake in the users first, and the money will naturally follow later on. It’s why he paid $1 billion for Instagram, which has yet to monetize itself, though it continues to grow at a rapid pace. And it’s why he wants to give WhatsApp the runway to keep growing over the next five or so years.

WhatsApp’s growth numbers already speak for themselves. It has upward of 450 million people using the service worldwide, with more than 70 percent of those returning to the app on a daily basis. Those levels of engagement are unheard of in Internet circles, and it’s why Zuckerberg and company were so taken by the fast-growing mobile app.

But I’m curious how Wall Street will take to this line of popular Valley thought. After all, at the end of the day, revenue — not users — does the talking when share price is concerned.

The outlook, however, may be better than I thought. Facebook hit an all-time high in trading on Monday morning, up around 4.5 percent at $71.33 per share.

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