Would being acquired by Facebook be in Pinterest’s interests?

10 Apr 2012

Facebook wants to have Corn Flakes with you. It would also like to help you shop for nice clothes and accompany you to nice places, check out nice art, too. Sounds like the perfect relationship, yeah? Well, Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram for US$1bn was the precursor to a number of steps that may see it snap up Pinterest, if another rival doesn’t get there first.

Social media is becoming the narrative for our lives. Accompanied by powerful smartphones that soon will let you zap and buy and tell everyone about what you have bought, what you have eaten and how many miles you have run, this is a powerful movement, no doubt about it.

In fact, many of us are already volunteering this information and Pinterest is a case in point. Earlier this year, comScore reported that with 11.7m users, Pinterest was the fastest site in history to break through the 10m unique-visitor mark. Most of the site’s users are female – with 97pc of the site’s Facebook Likes being made by women. It’s no accident that casually wandering through Pinterest is a little like wandering into Bloomingdale’s or River Island. There’s a lot of fashion there. Food too, lots of recipes.

There’s also interesting takes on another visual platform that has just been acquired by Facebook: Instagram.

Instagram is a social network in its own right, with more than 1bn photos uploaded, some 30m iOS users and about 5m Android users after just one week of launching the Android app.

It was a very clever move by Facebook and one no doubt eased by lucrative stock options in the run-up to a potential US$100bn IPO for Facebook in the coming weeks.

In effect, Facebook has the currency to make some clever acquisitions and Pinterest is a very obvious target. No doubt other internet players are thinking likewise.

But before we can talk of any bidding war, what about Pinterest’s hopes and dreams? Maybe Pinterest doesn’t desire or need to be acquired. There is, of course, too much focus on the Trade Sale in technology circles.

Imagine what might have happened if Facebook succumbed to the temptation of a nice lucrative payday and was acquired five years ago by say, em, well maybe Microsoft, for example.

Social media acquisitions that end up as roadkill

History might have been very different. Acquisitions of social networks by firms that aren’t themselves in the business but wish to enter the business can turn out very badly.

Bebo’s acquisition by AOL for US$850m in 2008 was a disaster for Bebo and AOL. AOL eventually sold it to venture capital firm Criterion Capital Partners for an undisclosed sum. It has been suggested that the sale raised less than $10m. I remember interviewing founder Michael Birch – now back at Bebo – and he made it clear he didn’t believe AOL understood the social network.

Another social media buyout that went horribly wrong was MySpace. The feisty music-oriented social network began with so much promise – in 2006 it briefly surpassed Google as the most-visited website in the US – and was bought by News Corp in 2005 for US$580m. Numerous management reshuffles and redesigns ensued and MySpace popularity waned and the company went from peak employment of 1,600 to less than 200 today.

At its peak, MySpace was worth an estimated US$12bn. Last year, it was bought by Specific Media and singer/actor Justin Timberlake for US$35m.

I sincerely hope Facebook’s execution track record and its intense engineering focus will bode well for Instagram, which Mark Zuckerberg says he will allow to run independently.

Whoever gets their hands on Pinterest – or indeed if Pinterest intends to go it alone for the foreseeable future and perhaps IPO at some stage – the short history of social media is littered with salutary examples of what can go wrong.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years