I ran into Twitter co-founder Biz Stone at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference last week in Pasadena, California. After talking at length about why Twitter matters and how it'll succeed, I came away with this: It's probably too late for a tech giant to buy Twitter.
"The truth is, we're not even entering acquisition talks right now because we're absolutely committed to building value." Stone said. This comes after co-founder Jack Dorsey told me on June 3 that Twitter would "consider" selling at the right price.
"What he [Dorsey] meant to say was, because we have investors, if there was a very serious offer, you're irresponsible not to listen," Stone told DailyFinance. Dorsey is a board member and he expressed what any good company board member should, Stone said, which is, "If an offer captures the perceived upside, then we have fiduciary responsibility to look at it seriously."
According to TechCrunch, which acquired confidential Twitter documents and published some of the information contained therein last week, Twitter hopes to have one billion users by 2013. Using that as perceived upside, if a company paid $2 a user, based on Twitter hoping to generate $1 per user per year, I'm estimating a minimum $2 billion price tag. Anything less probably wouldn't fetch the micro-blogging website at this point. Realistically, it would take a higher offer.Yes, you can argue that Twitter's not making money. The company appears to mulling over how to turn their growing audience into cash. Last week, Twitter launched a Twitter 101 sub-site to show users how to make money Tweeting, and Stone said the company will make money this year.
Markets, and anything of value, trade on perception. Why does gold trade at more than $900 an ounce and not less than $400 an ounce as it did just five years ago? It's the same ounce of gold. Weighs the same. Looks the same. Liquidity hasn't changed much since 2004. It's about the perceived demand for the value of that ounce.
The value of an ounce of Twitter has gone up considerably since January, when it caught fire on Google Trends, or April, when there were rumors of interest from Google, Microsoft or even Apple. That growing popularity since January? That's demand. As it grows, so does perceived value and the price it would take to buy Twitter.
What's changed? Perception. Not much else has changed for Twitter. Same guys running the place. They've hired a few more employees, with 55 in all, Stone said and many more users. Whether it was Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT) or Apple (AAPL), a savvy buyer should have pounced when the value was lower. Today, it's much more. Sure, Twitter's value could have dropped in recent months and can still drop. But if it doesn't, they've missed out.
It's too late to buy Twitter. The only companies that could afford the micro-blogger are public, though privately-held Facebook might squeak by too. If they pay too much, their shareholders will revolt. They'll revolt even more if it takes years to make money with Twitter. As we're seeing with Google and YouTube or News Corp. (NWS) and MySpace, shareholders get angry when saddled with sexy-named tech darlings that don't morph into printing presses.
The question for anyone looking at Twitter is: Can they duplicate it? Sure they can. Facebook duplicated MySpace, and some would argue, improved upon it. Aye, but the danger of a tech giant thinking 'We can come up with our own Twitter-like product at a fraction of what it would cost to buy that company,' is this: You build it and no one cares. Oh, then you look bad. Worse than if you overpaid for Twitter and it flops. Google built Google Video, which didn't catch on, so they bought YouTube. Now Hulu may, or may not, be a better YouTube, but at least Google can rival Hulu with YouTube. They wouldn't be in the fight with Google Video.
Twitter has been too hot for too long for it not to matter. Why is it succeeding? That's a story for another day. Is it succeeding? Yes. Will someone come along and beat it? Maybe. Probably. Ashton Kutcher, who has the most Twitter followers in the world, said Twitter may eventually be beaten at its own game, at the Fortune conference last week.
But what if no one beats it? What if Google Wave goes the way of Google Video? What if there are too many Twitter users, companies and others rooting for and invested in Twitter? Then the coming Twitter-killer may not be able to succeed.
I believe it's already too late. Twitter has become a household name. Its "perceived upside," as Stone called it, makes it too expensive for a Google, Microsoft or Apple to pay without looking like fools to their shareholders. If they dared to put forth an inflated bid, it sounds like Twitter would at least listen. A buyer faces the risk of colossal failure; or if Twitter succeeds, they'll look like geniuses for catching lightning in a bottle.
So Google or Microsoft or Apple, you have to ask yourself -- do you feel lucky?
Anthony Massucci is a senior writer for DailyFinance. You may follow him on Twitter at hianthony.