A company that is a household name in the tech world has just paid more than $1bn for a four-year-old start-up with barely any revenues. In any other industry, this would be an indefensible squandering of shareholder money.
For the always-paranoid leaders of the biggest tech companies, though, rolls of the dice like this are quickly becoming standard operating procedure.
Thanks to the viral growth of disruptive new internet services, threats can seem like they’re lurking round every corner. It is not merely about finding the next growth market: even a seemingly impregnable company is vulnerable when the ultimate “customers” for its products – the consumers or workers who use them – gravitate en masse towards things that are easier or more convenient to use.
No, this is not Facebook’s purchase of mobile photo app Instagram this year, though it bears more than a passing resemblance. This time it is Microsoft stepping forward with a $1.2bn deal to buy a social networking service aimed at office workers.
The move says a lot about where attention is shifting in the wake of Facebook’s fumbled debut on Wall Street.
The ad-supported consumer internet business was all the rage in the long run-up to that initial public offering. But what the tech industry likes to call its “enterprise” customers – the businesses and public-sector buyers whose spending represents the bulk of the industry’s revenues – are moving into the limelight. The next IPOs will come from this world, not the consumer internet.
You can put this down partly to the tireless opportunism of the investment bankers: if investors feel burnt by Facebook and Zynga, then it’s time for a different story.
Yet the shift also reflects the deep changes that are sweeping through enterprise computing and creating new business opportunities that may be bigger than those in the consumer world.
That the company Microsoft just agreed to buy goes by the catchy name of Yammer says something about its strategy. The top-down approach to imposing social networking on office workers doesn’t work well. But letting employees experiment with simple and appealing services that add something to their working lives enables useful services to take hold virally.
Yammer sneaks into the working world by giving users free access to its service, then steps forward to make a sale to IT departments that need the tools to administer the new networks that have sprung up beyond their control.
This business model is still at an early state of evolution – the company is said to have made only about $20m in revenues last year – but it points to one consideration that draws investors to enterprise tech: compared with the ad-dependent consumer internet, there are often more reliable sources of recurring revenue to be found. LinkedIn, for instance, has emerged as the one true success story from the round of IPOs that preceded Facebook, thanks to a business that relies heavily on providing services for recruiters.
In Microsoft’s case, selling collaboration and “productivity” software – such as Office and Sharepoint – has turned out to be a more resilient business than many expected with the rise of the internet. Social networking, however, may represent part of a disruptive alternative, so tying a “freemium” service such as Yammer into its core moneymakers makes sense.
Yet the enterprise world is also prone to bubbles, as anyone who was around at the time of the dotcom boom can attest. The question now is whether the sort of sky-high prices paid by strategic acquirers such as Microsoft will spill over on to the stock market, as investors look for the next round of high-growth stories from the tech world.
The first test will come this week with the IPO of ServiceNow, which helps companies automate their IT operations. It sells what is known as “software as a service” – charging companies a regular fee to let their workers access its service over the internet, an approach that is starting to subsume the traditional world of software applications.
ServiceNow may have had revenues of less than $100m last year and has been lossmaking so far in 2012, but it has still put a notional price tag on itself of more than $2bn.
If all goes well, this could open the door to a wave of enterprise tech IPOs on Wall Street. The groups will be much smaller and it will be much less glamorous than Facebook. But with any luck, investors may come out of it feeling less bruised.
Richard Waters is the Financial Times’ West Coast Managing Editor
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