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The morning paper reported that Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel turned down an (all cash) purchase offer from Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) for approximately $3 billion.

My Snapchat-addicted teenager was relieved, saying "that means we're probably not going to get ads." (I had to break it to her that ads are inevitable, no matter who owns the company).

There is an interesting comparison to other pre-revenue startups

  • Snapchat, two years old, refused $3 billion offer from Facebook
  • Instagram, two years old, $1 billion purchase in 2012 by Facebook
  • YouTube, 18 months old, $1.65 billion purchase in 2006 by Google (NASDAQ:GOOG)
  • Pinterest, valued at $3.8 billion in last month's VC round
  • WhatsApp turned down $1 billion from Google in April, and one analyst Wednesday estimated its value at $11 billion (based on Twitter's (NYSE:TWTR) $24b market cap after last week's IPO)

Obviously, these are exceptional exit opportunities, but still there are lessons for other firms considering the timing of their exit.

The New York Times suggests that its offer for Snapchat suggests desperation by Facebook:

Facebook's Snapchat bid shows triple the desperation. The social network paid $1 billion for no-revenue Instagram a little over a year ago. Now, it's said to be dangling as much as $3 billion to lure a mobile app that sends self-destructing digital images. Facebook's apparently escalating need to buy off marauders at its moat suggests its defenses may be scalable.

Coming just months before its initial public offering, Facebook had obvious reasons to buy Instagram. Consumers were spending more time on mobile devices, instead of desktop computers. This was listed as a "risk factor" in its prospectus for its initial public offering as the social network still hadn't figured out how to make money on mobile advertising. More important, it faced the risk that users might migrate to a rival optimized for smartphone usage.

Snapchat has similarly astounding growth. In September, its users were sending 350 million photos a day, up from 200 million in June.

Still, there's a disquieting element about a company spending billions for a simple application it could almost certainly have replicated for next to nothing. Facebook's acknowledgment that teenagers are using its service less on a daily basis may signify the social network is losing its edge among the ranks of new technology adapters. That it is also now willing to shell out $3 billion to snuff out a rival in its infancy brings with it a whiff of desperation.

Writing on Sunday, Blogger Ben Evans asked where Facebook should draw the line:

Is FB going to buy Whatsapp, Snapchat, Line, Kakao and the next ten that emerge as well? Sure, some of those will disappear, but it doesn't look like FB will crush the competitors the way it did on the desktop. On mobile, FB will be just one of many.

From the standpoint of the entrepreneurs, Business Insider reports on those claiming that Instagram sold too early and too cheap:

Now, 18 months later, industry people are starting to believe that [CEO Kevin] Systrom was wrong to accept that deal. They believe that if Instagram had stayed an independent company, it could be worth between $5 billion and $15 billion today.

This morning, activist investor Eric Jackson tweeted: "Systrom has to be feeling like he totally missed this wave. Instagram likely worth $15B today minimum." Jackson told us he came up with that valuation figure by looking at Instagram's total active users, about 150 million, and Twitter's, around 236 million. Assuming that Instagram's user base is more U.S.-weighted, and therefore more valuable, he figures Instagram's market cap as an independent company would be at least half of Twitter's $30 billion.

To me, this is the question of the value of a bird in the hand. Instagram's continuing success is not guaranteed. Like any stock, the value could go down, not up. (NB: Digg, MySpace, AOL). Since they're pre-revenue (let alone having positive cash flow), no one has any idea what these companies will be worth.

It seems unlikely that Spiegel (or Systrom) will have another comparable exit opportunity. If (as Wikipedia says) Systrom owned 40% of Instagram, 40% of $5b-1b is $1.6b (pretax) left on the table. For the founders, it's the difference between never having to work again, and having enough pocket cash to change the world, whether by buying/selling companies or eradicating malaria.

Mark Zuckerberg refused a Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) purchase offer and delayed his IPO, and now is #20 on the list of US billionaires with a worth of $19 billion, the richest American under 40 years old. Timing is everything: Zuckerberg is worth far more than the widow of Steve Jobs, who accomplished far more over a longer period (but IPO'd early and sold his Apple founder's shares in the 1980s).

Key employees with stock options will be similarly conflicted. With another 5x rise in valuation, some may never work again. On the other hand, some have enough money to buy a house (even in Los Angeles) today, and they won't if the company never concludes a successful exit. The more sophisticated realize they, too, may not have another opportunity: a childhood friend had stock options from seven Silicon Valley companies, and none ever produced a sizable ($100K+) return.

The existence of a Chinese VC valuing Snapchat at $4b is giving Spiegel a concrete reason to turn down the Facebook offer. Still, new capital is not liquidity. Also, as Tech Crunch notes for Pinterest, the ever-increasing valuation may make it impossible for late investors to profit from acquisition - making the exit IPO or nothing.

So does turning down a $3 billion exit mean a $10 or $15 billion one? Or a $500 million one? Spiegel isn't panicking, but instead is leaving all his chips on the roulette wheel for one more spin.

Source: A Bird In The Hand