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Microsoft in talks to buy Facebook stake

Microsoft in talks to buy Facebook stake

Some people laughed at Mark E. Zuckerberg when he reportedly turned down a $900 million offer last year for Facebook, the social networking Web site he founded three and a half years ago.

But Microsoft, Google and several funds are considering investments in the fast-growing site, according to people with knowledge of the talks, that could give the start-up a value of more than $10 billion.

While discussions were still in the early stage, these people said that Microsoft was considering an investment of $300m to $500m for a 5 per cent stake of the company. Google is also said to be interested in an investment.

Facebook’s valuation could go even higher as the two rivals create the kind of competitive bidding situation that has recently driven the acquisition prices of other start-ups into the stratosphere.

Representatives from Facebook, Microsoft and Google all declined to comment on the talks.

The investment discussions by Facebook are part of its effort to raise an additional round of capital to further the company’s growth and build on its current momentum. The company has solicited interest not only from internet companies but also from a handful of financial players including venture capitalists, hedge funds and private equity firms, according to people with knowledge of its plans.

Facebook is seeking a minimum valuation of $10bn but interested bidders have expressed a willingness to value it as high as $13bn, on the assumption that, in the future, Facebook will become a powerful player in the online world.

These numbers might have little basis in actual revenue or profit. Facebook is a private company and does not reveal its income. But earlier this year, a Pali Research analyst, Richard Greenfield, estimated that the company brought in $60m to $96m in annual revenue, with no real profit. Much of that revenue comes from a year-old advertising relationship with Microsoft, which places display advertisements on the site.

Mr. Greenfield said the investment price that Microsoft was considering might have more to do with keeping the prize out of the hands of its powerful rivals. “There may be competitive reasons to be connected to this asset beyond what the specific valuation is today,” he said. “You may be paying a premium to keep others out.”

The lack of a track record for Facebook might actually be driving the price up. “Trying to delineate a value today of what was a new industry five years ago is challenging right now,” Mr. Greenfield said.

Last September, Yahoo was in acquisition talks with Facebook. It reportedly offered $900 million to buy the site outright and was rebuffed by Mr. Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old chief executive, who has said that he was determined to keep the company independent and take it public through an initial public offering.

Google and Microsoft are jockeying for a stake in a social networking site that is said to be creating a new way for internet users to meet people and interact with friends on the Web.

In May, Facebook redefined itself as a platform, allowing other companies to create features like games, photo-sharing tools and music players that run in Facebook.

That strategy, just four months old, has unleashed a flood of interest in the company, with thousands of independent software developers creating a range of programs for the service.

“We have this situation where every developer worth his salt here in Silicon Valley seems to be working on a Facebook application,” said Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research.

Facebook is full of activities, from the goofy, like “biting” friends with a virtual vampire, to the more utilitarian, like seeing what parties and events Facebook friends are attending. There are more than 4,000 third-party applications on Facebook, the company said.

The strategy has drawn plenty of attention and new users to the site. Facebook has more than 40m members, up from 9m last year.

There may be personal reasons that Facebook would align itself with Microsoft, according to a person with knowledge of the companies’ executives. Mr Zuckerberg has a personal friendship with Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s chief software architect and one of the people stepping in for Bill Gates, the co-founder who is giving up his day-to-day responsibilities at the company.

Also, Jim Breyer, a managing partner at the venture capital firm of Accel Partners and one of three Facebook board members, was an investor in Groove Networks, Mr Ozzie’s company, which Microsoft purchased in 2005.

The discussions between Microsoft and Facebook were first reported Monday on the Web site of The Wall Street Journal.


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