Pricey Twitter Hits the NYSE Today at $26 A Share

5 minute read
Chris Knight avatar

Twitter becomes one of the most high-profile US initial public offerings since Facebook today. After raising its starting price range once, it boosted the share price even higher, causing concern among some investors.

Is a mere social messaging service that's still losing money and will only generate revenue of about $620 million this year really worth $18 billion? That's the big bet investors will have to decide. The company is not profitable, and it is not expected to be so until at least 2015.

You Only IPO Once

As a public company, Twitter will be under pressure to monetize its hundreds of millions of users, promoted tweets and other assets. But the IPO has even more meaning for investors. It is a test for the stock market after the embarrassing start to Facebook's trading life and other recent network failures that have halted deals.

UPDATE: In the early minutes of official trading, Twitter stock was hitting $47, up $21 on the starting price or 80 percent. 

But the speculation is there will be plenty of investors eager to get in on the Twitter action. The company's stock is expected to do a brisk trade when the New York Stock Exchange sounds the opening bell at 9:30 EST today. There are those who are always willing to bet on a first day spike — investors who may only hold the stock for minutes or hours. However, other investors seem convinced the company is a solid bet and will try to maximize their positions or to benefit from any perceived short term weakness if the stock dives. 

Still, the IPO begs the question. Is $26 a share too much for 140 characters and 230 plus million active monthly users? Analysts don't expect Twitter to see black ink until well into 2015 or beyond. But if you are intrigued nonetheless, you can follow today's action live on MarketWatch.  

In order to grow into its enormous valuation with its current rate of only $600 million in annual revenue and no profits, Twitter will have to show sustained growth over the next five years and not lose any momentum. The price implies that investors believe that Twitter will end up making profits in excess of several billion dollars a year, like Facebook. To compare, in 2014, Facebook is projected to have about $10 billion and earn about $1.5 billion in profits. It has a market cap of $115 billion, giving it a forward price/earnings ratio of about 43.

No doubt Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and his team have all sorts of plans. But they tread a fine line between growing the user base and making money. Notably they need to grow advertising revenue outside the US while significantly growing the userbase, which is dwarfed by Facebook. Twitter's biggest strength is that the userbase does most of the work, creating hashtags, breaking news and sharing tweets that bring in more users and activity. 

Playing With Money

At $26 a share, the IPO will raise $1.82 billion in new capital (before costs) the IPO will generate $1.82 billion (before costs) for the company to play with — plenty of cash for further acquisitions. Twitter's best known mergers and acquisitions were TweetDeck, Posterous and Vine. But it has more recently acquired lots of back-office tech companies like Ubalo, a company that provides various services designed to speed the coding process, and Lucky Sort, a startup specializing in data visualization, plus several advertising companies to help developer its revenue sources.

Learning Opportunities

Twitter is expected to have a focus on the revenue per user metric. The company is hiring business development managers for mobile to improve the app experience, where most of the users see and create their tweets.

It is also focusing on the media, and likely wants to improve the value and profile of curated or authoritative tweets from big media names. A recent example of this evolution saw the introduction in imagery making brands happier than the users. 

However, it will also be driven by the user base. Imagine if a superuser like Katy Perry or Justin Bieber, the Catholic pope or a sports star like Le Bron James ditches Twitter for a new rival or leaves the service because of a low-quality user experience, abuse (hence, the recent introduction of the "Report Tweet" option) or another problem.

That could trigger a sea change among users that becomes a tidal wave of defection or dissatisfaction. Twitter will also be a huge target for hackers. While the infamous Fail Whale is largely a thing of the past, Twitter suffers regular glitches and any concerted attack will negatively impact perception. More to the point, people will have to flock to a rival service to post their "Twitter is down" messages. 

For businesses, websites and content creators, the IPO won't immediately change their engagement with Twitter or end users. But it does put them on notice that changes could come quickly — and everyone needs to be ready to adapt to them. 

Contributing author Scott Raynovich also added to this story.