Is Snap the Next Facebook or the Next Twitter?

Feb 02, 2017

Snap Inc. filed a public paperwork on Thursday afternoon for what has become one of the most hotly anticipated initial public offerings since Facebook's IPO in 2012. Mark Zuckerberg's brainchild, of course, went on to become a $385-billion colossus with almost 2 billion users.

Does Snap have what it takes to become that kind of runaway success, or will its star fade the way Twitter's did?

Facebook (fb) may be the model that Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel would like everyone to focus on. But when investors think about the potential downside to investing in the company, Twitter is one of the examples that will probably spring to mind.

When Twitter went public in 2013, the hope was that it would follow Facebook's lead and become a social-media behemoth, spinning off cash from advertising and other offerings. It had a fast-growing user base, and it had proven to be an essential part of world-changing news events from the Arab Spring in the Middle East to the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

Building on a frenzy of interest in its shares, Twitter (twtr) raised $1.8 billion, and before the day of its IPO was over, the stock had climbed more than 70% to $44.95, giving the company a market capitalization of almost $25 billion. Future growth prospects were seen as rosy.

Fast forward a few years, however, and the picture looks dramatically different. As the initial growth of both revenues and number of users has slowed, Twitter's stock has fallen steadily to the point where it has lost over 60% of the value it had after its IPO. Even after a recent uptick in interest, the company's total market value is just $12 billion.

One thing that differentiates Snap is that it isn't strictly a messaging company—in fact, the company doesn't even describe itself that way. It calls itself a camera company. And CEO Evan Spiegel believes that the camera is, and will continue to be, the primary interface for mobile devices.

At the same time, Snap is also betting that it can reinvent mobile devices and cameras, as it is trying to do with its Spectacles, funky sunglasses that have cameras built in and can take 360-degree video. As popular as they seem to be, however, becoming a manufacturing company whose business is based on proprietary hardware can also be a trap—just ask BlackBerry.

And let's be clear: Snap is losing prodigious amounts of money at the moment, with no sign that that is going to change any time soon. It lost almost $500 million in the last 12 months alone.

When it comes to money-losing big bets, the other tech IPO that Snap and its supporters would probably like people to compare it to is Google (goog). Skeptics criticized the search engine for being drastically overvalued when Google went public in 2004, but it went on to become one of the most valuable companies of all time.

It's possible that Snap could revolutionize mobile messaging and the photo/video interface in the same way that Google reinvented search. And, theoretically, Snap might be able to find or invent a new form of advertising that is as big a revenue generator as search-related ads (an idea Google borrowed from a competitor and then perfected). But is that likely?

Or is it more likely that Facebook and Instagram will suck a lot of the wind out of Snap's sails, as they have already by copying some of the company's innovations—including Stories, the photo and video collection feature that Instagram more or less duplicated holus bolus?

Either way, investors will have very little to say about which direction the company goes, since Spiegel and his co-founder have chosen to follow the Google and Facebook model in one other crucial aspect. Like those companies, the two founders of Snap control a majority of the votes, courtesy of multiple-voting stock.

So while you can go along for the ride, you aren't allowed to steer.

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