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posted: 5/3/2014 7:42 AM

Facebook leaves mobile concerns in dust with surge in revenue

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Bloomberg News

Facebook Inc. was once mired in mobile-advertising doldrums. That was so 2012.

The world's largest social-networking site reported first- quarter profit and revenue this week that blew past analysts' estimates. Mobile accounted for 59 percent of advertising revenue, up from almost nothing at the time of Facebook's initial public offering in May 2012.

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The stock jumped as much as 6 percent in extended trading, adding to a rally that's seen Facebook's market value more than double in the past year. Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman is leaving on a high note, announcing his resignation yesterday after helping the company rebound from a disastrous IPO to build up to a market capitalization of more than $160 billion.

"Quarter after quarter Facebook has fairly easily beaten expectations," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner Inc. "They clearly have a handle on their mobile business."

Revenue in the first quarter rose 72 percent to $2.5 billion, beating the average analyst estimate of $2.36 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Net income almost tripled to $642 million, or 25 cents per share, from $219 million, or 9 cents, a year earlier. Profit excluding some items was 34 cents per share, exceeding analysts' average estimate of 24 cents.

The stock rose as much as 6 percent to $65.04 in extended trading after dropping 2.6 percent to $61.36 at yesterday's close in New York.

Facebook has 1.28 billion monthly active users, or almost half the world's Internet population, up from 1.23 billion last quarter. The company has more than 1 billion monthly active users on mobile, with more than half of daily active users only connecting on mobile.

Mobile Slog

"Facebook's business is strong and growing," Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg said on a conference call yesterday. "It has been a busy quarter and a strong one."

Yet even with its rising membership, making money on smartphones proved to be a challenge until recent quarters. Facebook had to deal with smaller screens and the emergence of other social applications designed specifically for phones. To build its mobile audience, the company poured money into developing products and bought photo-sharing app Instagram. It is also testing a mobile-ad network.

EMarketer Inc. projects Facebook will capture 22 percent of the $31.5 billion mobile ad market in 2014, up from 18 percent last year. That's second to Google Inc., whose share is likely to fall to 47 percent from 49 percent, according to eMarketer.

Facebook is now seeking to make even more money on gadgets, agreeing to buy text messaging service WhatsApp Inc. for $19 billion and virtual-reality goggle maker Oculus VR Inc. for $2 billion. WhatsApp will bring 500 million consumers, though the company generates minimal revenue.

Future Uncertain

"The core of this business is very strong, and their biggest challenge will be sustaining their growth rate in this range," said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst at Rosenblatt Securities in New York. "We don't know how big these new areas can be."

Facebook is known for its stable management team, with only one top executive, former technology chief Bret Taylor, leaving since the IPO. Ebersman has been at Facebook for almost five years, while Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg has been there since 2008. Ebersman is leaving to work in the health care industry, and will be replaced by former Zynga Inc. CFO David Wehner, who joined Facebook in 2012.

"He's going to do something he really loves," Sandberg said in an interview of Ebersman. She added that Wehner is "really strong, really strategic."

Leaving Rich

Ebersman earned $10.5 million in compensation last year, mostly through stock awards, down from $17.5 million in 2012. He owns $47.8 million of Facebook shares.

To position the company for future revenue growth from its massive user base, Zuckerberg is building out a mobile portfolio that includes Instagram, Facebook's Messenger service and Paper, a magazine-like news feature.

Instagram and Messenger, which each have more than 200 million users, are still "probably a few years away from being an important business for us," Zuckerberg said on yesterday's conference call. The priority is getting a billion people to use those services before focusing on making money from them.

Zuckerberg is also pushing the 10-year-old company into new businesses. Last month, the company released a video product to some of its partners, aiming for a slice of TV's $66.8 billion ad budget. And Facebook agreed to buy Oculus for about $2 billion, a high-priced bet on the fledgling wearable-computing market. That deal was approved yesterday by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

In an even more far-out wager, Facebook said last month it is working to deliver connectivity via drones, satellites and lasers after purchasing Ascenta, a U.K.-based aerospace company.

Facebook closed the quarter with $12.6 billion in cash and marketable securities. Costs rose 32 percent from a year earlier to $1.43 billion, mostly from an increase in head count and infrastructure expenses.

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