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Thursday, March 19, 2009

Yes, Twitter's Business Model Is To Be Acquired, and Yes, It Will Be

This is the type of subject matter we set out to write about nearly ten years ago when we launched Traffick. And I'm a little surprised that we're still writing about it.

The upshot is Google is a massive funnel today. So not all of its individual lines of business need to make near-term profit. But the whole enterprise, right now, is geared towards dominating core streams of user attention and user functionality, with enough of that attention being monetized through advertising to pay for everything. That's the kind of scale the major players in the same race are all seeking. And it colors the prospects of standalone services looking to be acquired (or pretending to want to go it alone).

When we launched this site, our subhead/tagline was "The Guide to Portals" or "The Portal Portal". At the time, the "portal wars" raged. They don't call them that anymore, but the principle is still the same. In this emerging space of core online standards or starting points, or diversified digital lifestyle brands, or however you want to describe them, there's room for only a few major players. Since AOL took the lead in the area with Yahoo following on as the savvier version of same, the leading digital lifestyle monopolists have knitted together their various services in such a way that they keep you in their garden, or at least coming back. They had various grand visions of how they would accomplish that; few predicted that one feature -- search -- would be at the heart of the grand takeover of first place by Google, which hasn't looked back in years. Many of those schemes revolved around the idea that the ISP would be the lock-in point. Some thought nice features (better email) would do it. Microsoft hoped the browser or the OS would return them to universal dominance. Just buying up a big enough percentage of the important online stuff was another theory. IAC Interactive pursued that path, but never far enough to get anywhere close to scale. The others have played the "buy not build" game enthusiastically at times. They have to! User loyalty can't always be produced out of thin air. Orkut, Knol, and a good list of other Google inventions may never dominate their verticals.

Every so often a standalone service would emerge that would be so popular on its own it would be eagerly snapped up by one of the leading players. Sometimes it helped them build a nice feature (Rocketmail became Yahoo Mail) or add something viral and even more cool than many realized at first (ICQ by AOL). Yahoo made many great bets, though paying staggering sums for some of them: eGroups and Geocities beefed up community. They made some subtle bets (Flickr) and some awful ones (Broadcast.com). Their aggressiveness has left them where they are today: in second place (not bad). History buffs know that many wannabes (Excite, AltaVista, Go2Net) died unceremoniously, failing to reach top of mind.

Yep, this is all about scale - sustainable scale, but scale to be sure. Few of the standalone services would be household names today without those mega-acquisitions. They'd be popular, and bankrupt.

Google has made some subtle acquisitions (Applied Semantics, Blogger, Dejanews, Keyhole) and some stunning ones (YouTube), while developing far more great products and functionality in-house than any of their competitors. Without both the subtle and stunning acquisitions, they most certainly wouldn't be in the position they're in today.

In any case, this post is supposed to be about Twitter. Nielsen's recent report shows the service growing a stunning 1,328 percent year over year.

How to interpret this? One one hand you have the camp that understands what such a rapid growth rate means in this space. It's a rush of user attention - a locus of operations for the savviest of users that is now crossing the chasm to become a mainstream attention - that the big guys just cannot ignore. The month-over-month growth numbers are hugely important to anyone watching.

On the other hand you have the chicken littles who say that companies like Twitter have no business model.

Both are right. It's much harder for a get-big-fast online service to build a business model on their own than it is to sell. On the other hand, if they dominate a category, they can be pretty scary to the big guys.

The best precedent would be with YouTube. YouTube could have made a lot of noise about wanting to stick around for the long term, but where would they be today had they not sold to Google or someone else? It takes a long time to continue growing and investing in a platform before monetizing in a way that doesn't kill your user base. On the other hand, Google Video had largely failed. YouTube was already the People's Platform for online video. In the end, Google got great value for money. They talked the price down by referring to the copyright threats that were in the air.

The "poor man's email service" that is Twitter is both growing so fast that it cannot be ignored, and it has no credible way of handling all of the coming hyper-growth *and* monetizing in time to keep itself afloat financially, despite raising large sums of money. (Facebook's in a similar position but that's a separate topic.) Like YouTube, it is hurdling headlong towards an acquisition, in a game of chicken with the leading potential acquirers to see who can hold out the longest.

Which brings us to the question of which gigantic company can afford to underwrite such high-volume expansion that will eventually funnel into a bigger monetization picture, as Google did with YouTube.

It's an uncomfortable scenario in that Yahoo has been forced into a frugal state, and simply cannot afford to acquire Twitter. That's most uncomfortable for Twitter, as it leaves them looking at Microsoft -- who took an expensive stake in Facebook -- and Google as the only two logical acquirers. Oddball acquisitions can happen -- see eBay & Skype -- but they aren't ideal in the sense that the oddball could get spun out again in a couple of years, and who's to say the oddball acquirer would be the proper environment for growth.

In a weird sense, Twitter is most like ICQ, in the sense that it's gone viral and offers a certain kind of immediacy at a certain moment in digital communication history. AOL isn't the kind of company that acquires a Twitter today, though.

For companies like Twitter, the messy and as-yet-unconsolidated patchwork left by the also-rans (Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL) in the digital space may be bad news valuation-wise, as it creates too many distractions for these lesser candidates, and points so heavily towards a single acquirer.

Make no mistake about it, if Twitter can't find themselves an acquirer with deep pockets, and soon, they are in deep trouble. They are actually growing too fast.

Eric Schmidt's comments about Twitter being a "poor man's email service" may have been even more telling than we realize. Twitter under Google could go anywhere, but the literal interpretation of its value is typically how Google would look at the value at first. Could you slap targeted contextual text ads next to people's Twitter streams -- that look much like a thread in GMail? Why yes. And how much money do those ads make for Google? A healthy sum, but nothing stupendous. So in looking at Twitter as analogous to GMail, Schmidt is actually trying to put a real-world value on the company. And he's trying to knock that value down a peg from the hyped values that refer to untried monetization methods.

A similar game of chicken happened before -- with YouTube. And the valuation was a bargain for Google and didn't exactly make paupers out of the company founders and their investors. If I had to lay down a chip, I'd expect Google to acquire Twitter by the middle of May. We'll see.

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