Friday, April 13, 2012

What can you get for a billion dollars

You have a billion dollars burning a hole in your pocket (Gils, Zeno, and a few others have that problem !). Take your pick. What would you buy ? 800 patents, dating back to the early days of the Internet. Or a red hot new internet rage that everybody is talking about but which has no revenues. Or boring old Yellow Pages. What would you take ?

These are three transactions that actually happened in the last couple of weeks for about $1 bn. 

Microsoft bought the 800 patents from AOL for $1.1 bn. The patent world has become completely crazy for tech companies in the last few years. Everybody is suing everybody else for patent infringement. Some 800 plus patents are given simply for what goes into a mobile phone. Its impossible these days to launch anything without infringing on somebody's patent.The US patent office has gone crazy as I wrote about here - Patents have now become innovation stifling rather than innovation building. Anyway Microsoft believes its better to pay $1.1 bn to acquire them rather than defend later in court.

The crazy deal is Facebook buying Instagram for a $1bn. If you don't know what Instagram is, its  a photo sharing program which allows you to apply filters to your photo (for example to make your photo look like it was taken in 1960) and share it. For a humourous look at it, watch Jon Stewart's show here. This transaction confirms my view that Facebook is a nut case. Instagram has 13 employees and has no way to make any revenues at all, let alone a profit. And here comes Facebook which believes its worth $1bn. Anybody remember dot com mania. Its alive and kicking. Yeah Yeah - I am an old duffer who "doesn't get" the Internet Age.

The third is a boring transaction. Cerebrus , a private equity firm is buying The Yellow Pages from AT&T for a billion. Who even opens the Yellow Pages these days. Doesn't everybody Google everything ? Its a dying product (if not already dead), right ?  Dead wrong. Sure the business is unglamorous. But it has revenues of $3.3 bn and is churning out cash even while in a slow decline. Private Equity folks aren't fools - they can smell money better than any drug sniffing dog. This seems to be the bargain of the lot for the buyer.

All this just confirms my theory on valuations. There is no science to it despite what business schools like you to believe. It just depends on the degree of desperation of either the seller or the buyer.. Sometimes both !

Readers are invited to present their own creative proposals on what they might do with a billion. Gils and Zeno are excused on the grounds that they may have to give away what they might actually do !