At dinner at the Fortune Global Forum this week, I sat next to a businessman of a certain age who has spent a career managing companies that make products and profits. By the second day of our conference, he clearly had reached the breaking point over Silicon Valley’s magical thinking. “If I hear the words ‘disruption’ or ‘innovation’ one more time, I’m going to scream,” he told me.
I feel his pain. Covering the high-growth, sometimes no-profit darlings of the technology world can be exasperating and confusing. This is so because all the rules one learns in business—earnings matter as much as growth, for example—go out the window for a select group of companies.
Marc Benioff, the cloud-software mogul, gave a great demonstration of the charmed existence that certain companies enjoy. During a panel about leadership I hosted, in which Benioff was joined onstage by Marissa Mayer of Yahoo, the Salesforce.com CEO extolled the virtues of stakeholder value over shareholder value. Of course investors are important, Benioff said, but not so important as to get in the way of the values he envisions for his company. These laudable and opinionated beliefs include advocating for social justice and corporate philanthropy, to cite two examples.
Moments later Benioff dropped a tiny bit of a bomb by urging the tech industry’s “unicorns,” private companies worth more than a billion dollars, to go public. Only by submitting themselves to the rigor of answering to public shareholders can they ever realize their true potential, Benioff argued.
Putting shareholders second while advocating the benefits of having public shareholders isn’t necessarily contradictory, but it’s darn close. What makes Benioff’s cognitive dissonance more awkward, however, is that at 16 years of age, Salesforce.com still loses money. Yes, it generate oodles of cash, and its subscription model pushes revenue recognition out into the future. But the non-magical economy is full of subscription businesses whose profits aren’t erased by accounting rules. Salesforce.com, by the way, is worth nearly $52 billion.
The weather is marvelous, the people are fascinating, and investors throw money at fast-growth ideas. It’s no wonder everyone wants to learn what’s going on in Silicon Valley. They crave their piece of the magic.
BITS AND BYTES
Square sets IPO price below last private valuation. The digital payments company will offer 27 million shares for $11 to $13 per share, below the $15.46 they captured during its latest private funding. At the high end of that range, Square’s market capitalization would be about $4 billion. (Fortune)
Officials promise new trans-Atlantic data pact in early 2016. When the “safe harbor” agreement was invalidated in early October, it complicated data transfers between the U.S. and Europe. Both sides are eager for a resolution within three months, since European authorities have threatened to issues fines starting in January if U.S. companies don’t take better care with personal data of European citizens. (New York Times)
Alibaba eyes second investment in U.S. e-commerce sector. The giant Chinese company doesn’t plan to battle either Amazon or eBay head-on, but it has no issue supporting upstart competitors. Sources tell Bloomberg that Alibaba is readying an $80 million infusion for Boxed, which sells groceries and household items in bulk. It is already an investor in Jet.com, the discount marketplace that launched in July. (Bloomberg)
Judge sets court date for Uber’s class-action lawsuit. The case—which could have larger ramifications for the “gig economy”—will consider whether certain drivers should be classified as employees rather than independent contractors. That change could entitle them to expense reimbursements for gas and mileage, and other benefits such as overtime. The trial is set to begin June 26 in San Francisco. (Wall Street Journal)
Toyota plans $1 billion artificial intelligence push. The automaker is establishing a research and development facility near Stanford University, where it will employ 200 scientists to work on robotics and machine-smart transportation applications over the next five years. (New York Times)
Chinese technology giant Tsinghua seeks funds for expansion. It wants to spend $12 billion to build a new memory-chip factory and acquire semiconductor companies, although both plans require domestic regulatory approval. The plan would reduce its dependence on microprocessor imports. (Wall Street Journal)
YouTube adds virtual reality support to mobile app. The technology supports a new class of video content—and advertising—that offers realistic, 360-degree views. The catch is that people must use Google’s Cardboard virtual-reality glasses to see all the nuances. (Reuters)
FireEye blames weak sales on fewer Chinese hacking incidents. The company’s stock tumbled 23% Thursday after it missed third-quarter billings expectations and reduced its full-year revenue guidance. It blames a hacking truce between President Obama and China’s Xi Jinping. Other cybersecurity specialists, however, said they haven’t seen the same trend. (Fortune)
Why investors love Facebook
Facebook has defied the odds of consumer Internet startups. The vast majority of them reign for a brief period of time and then fall out of favor, shrivel up, and die. But 10 years in, Facebook has built a massive audience (1.55 billion) that few other companies can match. It has consistently grown that audience, despite its already-huge market penetration. And it has deepened user engagement, grabbing even more of its users’ attention each quarter.
Every earnings call is a victory lap. Part of that is because Facebook’s profit margins (32% this quarter) are enviable. And part of it is because Facebook is still in growth mode. It’s easier to post 45% revenue growth, as the company did in its third quarter earnings report Thursday, from a revenue base of $3 billion than it is from $120 billion (Wal-Mart’s revenue last quarter).
But, as Fortune writer Erin Griffith reports, the big reason investors are so bullish on Facebook is because its next generation of revenue sources is just ramping up.
MORE FORTUNE TECH COVERAGE
BlackBerry’s first Android smartphone is a mixed bag by Jason Cipriani
Venture firm Formation8 calls it quits by Dan Primack
Microsoft buys Mobile Data Labs for—you got it—mobile experience
by Barb Darrow
ShiftMobility wants to bring the entire auto parts network into the modern age by Kirsten Korosec
Why ‘buy online, pickup in store’ isn’t working for retailers
by Laura Lorenzetti
ONE MORE THING
Do you really need a connected crock pot? The secret ingredient for smart kitchens is oodles of data, which is forcing some soul-searching for pioneering appliance makers. (Fortune)
MARK YOUR CALENDAR
FutureStack: Define your future with New Relic. (Nov. 11 – 13; San Francisco)
AppSphere: Grow in a software-defined world. (Nov. 30 – Dec. 4; Las Vegas)
CES: The business of consumer technology. (Jan. 6 – 9, 2016; Las Vegas)
Google Ubiquitous Computing Summit: Platforms and protocols for wearables, home automation, and the Internet of things. (Jan. 11 – 12, 2016; San Francisco area)
Connect 2016: IBM’s social business and digital experience event. (Jan. 31 – Feb. 3, 2016; Orlando, Florida)
IBM InterConnect 2016: Cloud and mobile issues. (Feb. 21 – 25, 2016; Las Vegas)
Enterprise Connect: Communications and collaboration trends. (March 7 – 10, 2016; Orlando, Florida)
Microsoft Convergence 2016: Where business meets possibility. (April 4 – 7, 2016; New Orleans)