Zuckerberg’s Remarks Give Facebook Shares a Boost — But Can He Deliver?

On Wall Street, confidence in corporate management is crucial. Zuckerberg outlined his strategic vision. Now, Facebook needs to execute.

After three months of radio silence from top Facebook executives following the company’s controversial IPO, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s bullish comments at a San Francisco tech conference sent Facebook shares soaring 8% Wednesday. For Facebook investors, who’ve watched the company’s share price plummet by nearly 50% since the IPO, Zuckerberg’s remarks were a welcome expression of confidence by the social networking titan. In his first public comments since the IPO, Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook’s stock performance “has obviously been disappointing,” potentially causing some employees to leave. But, he said, he hoped his troops will “double down” on the future of the company.

And let’s face it: Despite the disastrous IPO and subsequent stock plunge, Facebook has a lot going for it. The company has nearly 1 billion users, $10 billion in the bank, and it dominates the social networking space. But despite those advantages, Zuckerberg portrayed his company as an underdog, which isn’t actually far off-base, given the criticism the company has faced after years of hype and soaring expectations. “I would rather be in a cycle where people underestimate us because I’d rather be underestimated,” Zuckerberg, 28, said in comments at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference after the close of the stock market Tuesday. Facebook shares have fallen by nearly 50% since the IPO, wiping out some $50 billion in shareholder value, including nearly $10 billion from Zuckerberg’s net worth. (He’s still worth over $10 billion, so it’s hard to feel too sorry for him.)

Addressing concerns about the company’s mobile strategy, Zuckerberg emphasized that optimizing its service for mobile devices is the top priority. In the weeks before the company’s IPO, Facebook disclosed that its users are increasingly accessing the service on mobile devices, and warned that it might be more difficult to make money off those users than those who access the service through its traditional desktop platform. But this week, Zuckerberg sounded a bullish note on the company’s mobile prospects. Specifically, he said that the company’s mobile users spend more time on the service, and are more likely to log-in daily. “I think it is really easy for folks to underestimate how really fundamentally good mobile is for us,” he said, though he acknowledged that Facebook “burned two years” by relying on a coding protocol known as HTML 5, which turned out to be a bust for the company.

Zuckerberg reiterated that Facebook is on a mission to make the world “more open and connected,” but in a nod to Wall Street, he emphasized that the company needs to make money in order to pursue that mission. He took pains to point out that the company’s mission and its business success are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the company needs to execute in both areas in order to be successful at either one of them. “Building a mission and building a business go hand in hand,” Zuckerberg said, according to a transcription of his comments by Forbes. “The primary thing that excites me is the mission. But we have always had a healthy understanding that we need to do both.”

In a bit of news, Zuckerberg shot down speculation that Facebook is developing its own mobile phone, calling that “the wrong strategy for us.” For months there have been rumors that Facebook would build its own mobile device, but Zuckerberg tried to put that notion to rest. “We’re building this network of 950 million users,” he said, according to the Forbes transcript. “Let’s say we built a phone, maybe we could get 10 million or 20 million people to use it. That doesn’t move the needle. We want to build a system that is, as deeply as possible, integrated into every device. We have three mobile platforms: mobile Web, Apple’s iOS, Android.” (Android is Google’s wildly popular mobile operating system.) Zuckerberg said that he “basically lives on his mobile device,” adding that he wrote his 2,000-plus-word Founder’s Letter — in which he laid out the company’s social mission — on his phone.

In one of his more eyebrow-raising comments, Zuckerberg discussed plans to compete with web titan Google in the search space, which Google dominates. “We do on the order of a billion queries a day, and we’re not even trying,” he said, referring to the searches Facebook users conduct on the site, primarily looking up names of people, although a small portion of searchers are apparently looking for company brand pages. (He later clarified that he was being “facetious” with the “not even trying” quip.) “I think search is evolving to provide specific answers,” he said. “Facebook is pretty uniquely positioned to answer most of the questions people want to ask, like ‘What restaurants do my friends like?’” Noting that Facebook has a team working on search, Zuckerberg called it “an obvious thing” for the company to focus on more in the future.

Facebook’s shares soared nearly 8% Wednesday in the wake of Zuckerberg’s remarks, and influential Wall Street analyst Ben Schachter greeted the young CEO’s comments warmly. “It was good to see Zuckerberg publicly present, and we think it is critical for investors to hear more directly from him,” wrote Schachter, an analyst at Macquarie Capital. “While none of his comments led us to change our financial model for the company, better understanding Zuckerberg’s priorities, motivation, and general focus is a positive for investors.” Schachter added: “We thought his comments regarding search over the longer-term were the most noteworthy of the presentation and will drive more discussion about a potential search revenue stream for Facebook while reigniting some concern about increased competition for Google.”

In past public appearances, Zuckerberg has occasionally appeared nervous and awkward. But not this time. It finally feels like the CEO is growing into his role as chieftain of one of the most important tech companies in the world. Facebook still needs to string together a run of successful quarters, but investors should be relieved by his performance this week, especially considering recent speculation about whether Zuckerberg has what it takes to lead a multi-billion dollar public company. On Wall Street, the psychological value of confidence in corporate management must not be underestimated. Facebook shareholders no doubt breathed a sigh of relief watching Zuckerberg’s performance, which should make progress allaying concerns about his leadership. Zuckerberg laid out Facebook’s strategic vision. Now, the CEO and his company need to execute.

By Sam Gustin

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