dating_game

It’s been one week since Facebook’s bought mobile messaging service WhatsApp for the brain-melting price of $19 billion. As the world ran out of superlatives and comparisons to describe the enormity of that sum (19 Instagrams? 5 million Segways?), we all wondered: How could an app with $20 million in estimated revenue last year sell for 950 times that? Publicly traded social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are valued at 20 times, 43 times, and 14 times their annual revenue, respectively. Even at Twitter’s high multiple, that would place WhatsApp’s value at around $850 million. What gives?

Sure, WhatsApp has a preposterous growth rate, claiming to add 1 million users a day. And take your pick out of all the strategic opportunities WhatsApp offers Facebook, from mobile to international expansion to photos.

One factor contributing to the $19 billion price-tag that can’t be ignored, however, is that Facebook may not have been its only suitor. Multiple sources have told multiple outlets that Google offered to buy WhatsApp for $10 billion. The Information even reported that Google was willing to beat Facebook’s offer.

UPDATED: Today, Google Senior Vice President Sundar Pichai said it is “simply untrue” that Google made an offer on WhatsApp.

Was Facebook the only one courting WhatsApp?

To find out, the team at Axial, a professional network that seeks to connect private companies with buyers, conducted a little thought experiment. They ran WhatsApp’s known metrics and revenue estimates through its recommendation engine to determine which buyers would most likely benefit from this acquisition.

First, Axial created a dummy profile for a “Mobile Communications Application Company For Sale” headquartered in Menlo Park called “Project Mercury.” They punched in WhatsApp’s impressive user growth metrics, which the company is proud to make public.

The harder part was estimating WhatsApp’s financials. As stated before, estimates have placed WhatsApp’s 2013 revenue at $20 million. The company makes money by charging users $1 a year after the first 12 months. Assuming (and again this is a big assumption — they don’t call them “thought experiments” for nothing) that each of its 465 million users stick with the service, and thus become paying customers by or near the end of 2014, WhatsApp would be on track to book $465 million in annual revenue.

With the profile created and the metrics set, Axial submitted WhatsApp to its recommendation engine as a potential acquisition target. The result? It found 22 buyers for whom it makes strategic sense to acquire WhatsApp, including personal computer manufacturer Lenovo, software giant Adobe, Japan’s Fujitsu (the world’s fourth-largest IT services provider), AT&T, and (perhaps tellingly) Google.

Again, again, this was only a thought experiment. There’s no evidence to suggest any of these companies had actively pursued WhatsApp. And as always with acquisitions currency matters: Both Google and Facebook have surging stock prices so the dollars wouldn’t be equal coming from, say, an Adobe– both in terms of what the stock means to Whatsapp’s employees but also what a suitor could afford to pay.

Still, matching companies with potential buyers is Axial’s business, though, so its an interesting thought experiment.

So what are the takeaways here? First, and perhaps most obviously, there are huge competitive and strategic reasons for Facebook to acquire WhatsApp that stretch across multiple technology sectors. Facebook may have been the highest bidder, but the acquisition has ramifications in the telecommunications and software industries, too.

The second takeaway is for private companies looking for buyers. What’s fascinating about Axial’s study is that it removes hype from the equation, focusing solely on metrics. WhatsApp may not be as hyped as Snapchat, but it still received its fair share of attention from the press, which inevitably colors our perception of its acquisition. What Axial proves is that you don’t necessarily need hype to court a big name buyer. And while hype-led bidding wars can help drive a price up, a no-name “Mobile Communications Application Company For Sale” can still make waves in the M&A market.

[Image via From Aspire to Beyond]