Facebook as a Successful Collegiate

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Facebook ( FB) probably went public too soon.

Now the company is more like a healthy teenager. The kind who goes to college on his parents' money, gets in trouble at frat parties, but who you just know is going to wind up selling insurance with a trophy wife and lots of friends down the road.

That seems to be Wall Street's view. Despite Facebook's small problems and missteps, investors are finally taking to the biggest initial public offering of 2012. The stock is up 85% year to date and opened today at around $49 a share -- well above its IPO price of $38 a share.

The reason is that the company has learned how to create revenue and profits. Just like that teenager figures how to charge fellow students for a keg, or use charm to make the school paper profitable, Facebook now has sustainable ad revenue and fat margins.

Revenue rose over the first six months of this year from $1.45 billion to $1.81 billion, and operating margins are close to 33%. That doesn't all fly to the bottom line because Facebook is paying hefty taxes, $133 million on the first quarter's $353 million in income, $212 million on the second quarter's $545 million.

Maybe it just needs an introduction to Apple's ( AAPL) accountant.

It's easy to argue that Facebook is overpriced, looking at its current price-to-earnings multiple of 185. With a market cap of almost $120 billion, it's selling at almost 12 times the most optimistic view on 2013 revenue, $10 billion.

But that's reasonable compared with Amazon's ( AMZN). Cash flow is also accelerating, with more than $2 billion in operating cash during the second quarter alone, and positive changes in net cash over three of the last four quarters.

The big expenses now seem baked in, like Facebook's cloud-computing centers. Investing cash flow was a negative $7 billion last year, but has run at just negative $1.1 billion this year, which operations more than offset.

Facebook's business model is also easier to understand now. It's a company that builds profitable cloud-computing applications and mobile apps, which it releases in a steady stream and usually monetizes with advertising.

Instagram is now getting ads, for instance. Yahoo ( YHOO) would love to turn itself into Facebook, but hasn't figured out the internal growth trick yet.

Our Chris Ciaccia has looked at the coming Twitter IPO and it's easy to conclude that Facebook's own S-1 made more sense. Facebook had more than 10 times Twitter's revenue when it went public; had three times as many users, and was actually showing a profit.

Yes, Facebook still has the problems typical of the college years. A party advertised in England on the service drew 600 gatecrashers who trashed the place. Brazil is threatening to take the service down there if Facebook doesn't take some data down. Facebook is even building its own "dorm" for top employees, next to its headquarters, a 21st century company town so that the work and party never end.

All this success is leading to the inevitable backlash, the type any popular jock or beauty queen might face from the nerds and less-popular kids. Buzzfeed now says that Snapchat is cooler, that it's taking on social aspects and that since its data gets automatically erased, it's a safer place to play.

Maybe. Facebook was born into a youth culture, and created a new one from scratch. It's sort of like the late Dick Clark, but its American Bandstand has been on only for a few years.

And Clark, despite a youthful appearance that looked a little creepy as he aged, was actually a successful entrepreneur, the kind one could invest in with confidence. I was honored to meet Clark at a cable industry meeting in the 1990s and, whatever else you might think of him, he was really a noble man.

For a role model, as he turns 30, CEO Mark Zuckerberg could do worse.

At the time of publication, the author was long Yahoo and Apple.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
Dana Blankenhorn has been a business journalist since 1978, and a tech reporter since 1982. His specialty has been getting to the future ahead of the crowd, then leaving before success arrived. That meant covering the Internet in 1985, e-commerce in 1994, the Internet of Things in 2005, open source in 2005 and, since 2010, renewable energy. He has written for every medium from newspapers and magazines to Web sites, from books to blogs. He still seeks tomorrow from his Craftsman home in Atlanta.

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