Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Bebo: By the (Not So Big) Numbers


What’s AOL getting for its $850 million in cash to purchase social-networking site, Bebo?

A very attractive social-networking service and a very experienced exec who has been running it.

But, perhaps more importantly for those who focus on pesky numbers, not a whole lot of revenue and negligible profits, judging financial information I got a gander at, courtesy of sources at several companies that looked at funding or buying Bebo.

And the rest of the overall outlook for Bebo? A small but growing business, with nice user engagement with strong page views and minutes spent per session, but little traction beyond Britain and Ireland, and too small a presence in the critical U.S. market.

(Bebo is also strong in New Zealand, but BoomTown does not have to point out that that country is not exactly the kind of game-changer that AOL CEO Randy Falco mentioned in his email to the troops about the purchase.)

According to the several sources who were privy to Bebo’s financials, for example, Bebo’s revenues for 2006 were only $7 million with $3 million in EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). In 2007, the results are still small, with $20 million in revenues and $5 million in EBITDA.

Using 2007 results, that means Time Warner’s (TWZ) AOL paid a handsome 42.5 times revenues and an incredible 160 times EBITDA.

AOL might assert that it makes Bebo a bargain, given that Facebook got valued at 50 times revenue when it got that $15 billion valuation from the $240 million investment from Microsoft (MSFT) last year. Still, Facebook has a huge presence in the U.S. and is growing strongly in Europe, including being just ahead in Bebo’s strongest territory in the U.K.

Projecting outward, the company estimated–remember, these are not actual numbers, but a best guess by Bebo execs–it would have $50 million in revenue and $10 million in EBITDA in 2008; $117 million in revenue and $48 million in revenue in 2009 and $193 million in revenue and $92 million in EBITDA in 2010.

While potential is important, the high price (which was still lower than the $1 billion and above that Bebo might have fetched even six months ago) and its small presence in the U.S. were the reasons several companies passed on acquiring Bebo–including News Corp. (NWS), Google (GOOG), Yahoo (YHOO) and CBS (CBS), said sources close to each of these companies.

On the plus side, users do spend a lot of time on Bebo, engaged by its more robust content offerings, such as its “KateModern” series (which I wrote about here), and its elegant and content-rich offering, which has some of the cleanness of a Facebook and some of the flash of MySpace.


In addition, in Bebo’s president Joanna Shields (pictured here somewhat awkwardly shaking AOL CEO Falco’s hand and with AOL President and COO Ron Grant), AOL gets an experienced and savvy Web exec, which it desperately needs these days, given the flux there.

Shields has worked at RealNetworks and Google and she will continue to run Bebo and report to Grant. In fact, Shields has effectively been running Bebo for a while now, and its founders Michael Birch and Xochi Birch will be leaving the company.

You can see Shields in action in this video, which I did while visiting London last summer:

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik