FORTUNE — Secret, a mobile app that lets users share messages anonymously with their phone contacts, isn’t the sort of company that should be getting acquired right now. Its product has only been in the app store for a few months, and is still getting clobbered in the download rankings by (slightly) older rival Whisper. It has absolutely no revenue and fewer than a dozen employees.
But I still think that Mark Zuckerberg may make Secret an offer it can’t refuse.
The first rumblings of Facebook’s (FB) acquisition interest in Secret came last week, with widespread talk that a $100 million offer was on the table. Mike Isaac of Re/Code quickly shot that down, saying instead that the two companies had met to explore how they could “work together.” A source close to Facebook seconded that explanation, telling me today that there have been no acquisition-related talks between the two companies.
Maybe I’m not thinking creatively enough, but what exactly is Facebook hoping to learn outside of things that could help it better price an acquisition? Secret isn’t going to reveal any of its special sauce, and Facebook already understands social network effects better than anyone (not to mention how to monetize its related data). I agree with Isaac that the $100 million “offer” was bunk, but not because Silicon Valley gossips are barking up the wrong tree. I just think that if Facebook does choose to make a bid, the actual number will be much, much higher.
For starters, Facebook has real reason to want Secret. Zuckerberg already is on record as wanting to focus on mobile apps, and for saying that “we don’t need to keep on only doing real identity things.” In fact, he even went a step further, referring to constant real identity usage as a “burden.” Secret clearly falls into that wheelhouse. Moreover, Zuckerberg lives and works within Silicon Valley, where Secret so far has gained much more traction than with the world at-large. Some might argue against buying into such geographic zeitgeistism, but those within Silicon Valley could simply view it as a large growth opportunity.
Moreover, lack of revenue has not proven to be a barrier to Facebook’s prior acquisitions. Instagram wasn’t making any money when it was acquired for $1 billion. Oculus VR garnered around $2 billion without having ever shipped product. And then there’s WhatsApp, which still hasn’t begun recognizing revenue for most of its 450 million users.
All of that said, I agree with Isaac that the $100 million “offer” was bunk. Namely because the number was much too low.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Secret should be worth more than $100 million, if you’re going by any sort of traditional valuation modeling. I’m simply saying that a deal won’t get done at that price, for three primary reasons:
- 1. Secret hasn’t been living under a rock, and knows what Facebook has been paying for high-profile acquisitions.
- 2. Secret is being told by all sorts of people that it could be the next Twitter, and may (at least sort of ) believe them.
- 3. Facebook likely believes Google (GOOG) also has some interest in Secret — beyond the fact that Google Ventures is one of the startup’s primary investors, alongside Kleiner Perkins — and even the threat of competition drives up prices.
So if Facebook is going to make an offer, it will be for the sort of number that blows Secret’s socks off. And it probably will be conveyed after a long walk with Zuckerberg, who will explain how Facebook lets its large acquisitions do their own thing. And how Facebook could really help Secret become a better service by leveraging all of that personal data it’s collecting (even though users don’t notice it). And then a deal will be done at an outwardly-shocking price, without any time for leaks. Not even on Secret.
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