January 04, 2011, 3:31 PM — Social networking phenomenon Facebook enters the new year as arguably the tech company with the most buzz.
Just in the past week alone we've learned about the brisk sales of Facebook shares on private-market exchanges, how Facebook has overtaken Google's main page as the most-visited destination on the Internet, and how investment firm Goldman Sachs just closed a $500 million funding round for the company.
But not everyone's part of the Facebook lovefest. Over at Fortune, contributing editor Duff McDonald warns prospective Facebook investors that the social networking site might not be a slam-dunk success (cough, MySpace, cough). Since regulations restrict prospective buyers of some private-company shares to "accredited investors" with a net worth of at least $1 million, McDonald's insights may not be considered "actionable" to most readers. Still, he raises some good questions the rest of us can consider, at least academically.
Here are McDonald's five red flags:
1. If Facebook is such a fantastic investment, why are people (or venture capital firms) selling their shares?
Investors "cash out" all the time so they can invest in other ventures, but McDonald's not buying it. He wonders whether the early investors see indications that Facebook's growth has peaked and that the company is having trouble monetizing its more than 500 million users. As long as Facebook doesn't have to report financial results, outsiders are reduced to guesswork and reading blogs. I'm not sure which is worse.
2. Goldman Sachs
Specifically, McDonald suspects the $50 billion price tag affixed to Facebook by Goldman is fictional. He certainly has a good argument there. Who really knows what Facebook is worth? Some people think it could be worth twice as much in an IPO. Others question whether the balloon will burst.
The simplistic, cookie-cutter games spit out by social gaming vendor Zynga -- Farmville, Cityville, etc. -- leave McDonald wondering if Facebook is pursuing a "lowest common denominator" strategy, which means low margins. Not a recipe for strong growth.
4. Just what are Facebook's numbers?
5. Warren Buffett
The legendary investor cautions against buying shares in companies with outsized valuations without first considering whether you would buy the entire company for that price if you had the money.