Zuckerberg: the Warren Buffett of technology

Written by Reuters | Updated: Mar 28 2014, 21:54pm hrs
What does Mark Zuckerberg think hes doing, spending $2 billion on Oculus You could take him at his wordthat he sees virtual reality as a new communication platform where truly present people can share unbounded spaces and experiences. Basically, virtual is the new mobile, and Zuckerberg wants to get in on the game early.

But note what Zuckerberg doesnt say, as much as what he does. Theres no mention of social, no mention even of Facebook. Zuckerberg is one of the greatest product managers in history, but his legendary focus is nowhere to be seen here: its all big, vague, hand-waving futurism. And note too one of the quieter members of Zuckerbergs board of directors: Donald Graham, the CEO of what used to be called the Washington Post Company, and old friend of Warren Buffett.

Buffett, of course, is the classic conglomerator: hell buy any business, so long as its good. Graham is similar: he inherited a grand media property, and added on all manner of unrelated businesses. Eventually he sold the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, for $250 millionand is still the CEO of a company, Graham Holdings, which is worth more than $5 billion.

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Is it too early to declare that Zuckerberg has ambitions to become the Warren Buffett of technology Look at his big purchasesInstagram, WhatsApp, Oculus. None of them are likely to be integrated into the core Facebook product any time soon; none of them really make it better in any visible way. Im sure he promised something similar to Snapchat, too.

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Zuckerberg knows how short-lived products can be, on the internet: he knows that if he wants to build a company which will last decades, its going to have to outlast Facebook as we currently conceive it. The trick is to use Facebooks current awesome profitability and size to acquire a portfolio of companies; as one becomes pass, the next will take over. Probably none of them will ever be as big and dominant as Facebook is today, but thats OK: together, they can be huge.

Zuckerberg is also striking while the iron is hot. Have you noticed how your Facebook news feed is filling up with a lot of ads these days Zuckerberg is, finally, monetizing, and hes doing it at scale: Facebooks net income grew from $64 million in the fourth quarter of 2012 to $523 million in the fourth quarter of 2013. At the same time, his stockwhich he is aggressively using to make acquisitionsis trading at a p/e of 100. If youre going shopping with billions of dollars in earnings multiplied by a hundred, you can buy just about anything you like.

Eventually, inevitably, Facebook (the product) will lose its current dominance. But by that point, Facebook (the company) will have so many fingers in so many pies that it might not matter. Zuckerberg, here, is hedging. Oculus might be valuable to Facebook if the social network grows. But it will be even more valuable to Facebook if the network shrinks. Zuckerberg has seen the astonishing speed with which products come and go online; he knows that his flagship wont last forever. So hes decided to build himself a flotilla.

Felix Salmon

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