Can sleeping giant Skype reinvent itself?
Do once-hot Internet start-ups who miss a date with destiny ever truly get a second chance? History says no, even for once-great names like Netscape, AOL and MySpace.
Skype hopes to be the exception. On Tuesday, a group led by top Internet financiers in Silicon Valley and Europe agreed to pay eBay $1.9 billion in cash for a 65 percent stake in the one-time web calling sensation.
The deal values Skype at a face-saving $2.75 billion, well above the $1.7 billion at which it has been valued on the ecommerce giant’s books. Ebay also stands to keep a 35 per cent stake in the company.
But that overlooks the humiliating $1.4 billion eBay has written off on the original deal. Four years ago, eBay promised to pay up to $4.3 billion for Skype, but it later scaled back the total payout. All told, it makes Skype one of the biggest value destroyers of any Internet merger since the last days of the dot.com era.
EBay’s justification for the Skype deal in 2005 was how its chat and calling services could serve as an online customer service platform connecting consumers directly into eBay merchants. That never happened.
Instead, product innovation slowed and business setbacks, such as a corporate ban on Skype’s network-hogging software inside companies, were allowed to fester, rather than becoming new business opportunities.
Pressure to justify the inflated acquisition price by wringing merger synergies out of the deal also proved a distraction. Into the void stepped newer Internet phenomena such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, all of which Skype might have displaced.
To be sure, 15 million users sign on every day to Skype for Web-based chats, phone conversations or video phone calls. Skype has registered nearly 500 million users worldwide since its founding in 2002.
Financially, it is still growing at levels that Web companies like Twitter can only dream about. Revenues of $551 million last year look on track to rise to $700 million in 2009, and the company has a goal of hitting $1 billion within two years. It has been profitable for several years, though Skype will not say by how much.
Yet it will take more than this to justify the valuation put on it by its new owners that says Skype is worth more than four times expected 2009 revenue. This looks difficult as long as its primary business remains undercutting established telephone companies on international calls when those rates are rapidly heading towards zero.
The reality is that — outside of deals with renegade mobile operator 3 — Skype is considered a pariah by most of the world’s telephone operators. They hate how Skype’s free, or nearly free, calling services undercut prices for their own calling plans.
Despite these hurdles, Skype must find its way into the center of the growing convergence between phones and computers. To succeed, it must mount a challenge to the new communication market leaders — Apple and Google, and even companies such as Twitter.
Only then will Skype be able to claim it has defied the odds and become the company to beat once again.