What do you do if you are the granddaddy of social networks, having been around for more than a decade, but you aren't getting any bounce from the social-network buzz? Shoot for the moon, of course! Classmates.com, acquired by discount Internet service provider United Online for $100 million in 2004, is being spun off in hopes of raising $125 million in an IPO. With the Valley in thrall to social networks, the IPO market heating up, and Facebook's mythical valuation going ever higher, it's the perfect time for United Online to capitalize on the purchase. But what goes up can also go down. Here's how the IPO play could backfire.
Classmates will be forever notorious for its annoying banner ads, spurious come-ons to induce users to join the network, restriction of all but basic functionality to paying subscribers, automatically renewed memberships, and difficult unsubscribe processes. An IPO does nothing to change those perceptions among burned consumers.
Although United Online touts the site's 50 million registered users, only 2.7 million (or slightly more than 5 percent) are paid subscribers. And free members are declining. Classmates doesn't even register on the top 20 social networks in the U.S., where MySpace and Facebook take more than 90 percent of the market.
The financials don't look good either. After garnering a narrow profit of $171,000 on revenue of $152 million in 2006, Classmates has swung into the red, losing $250,000 on revenue of $42.4 million in the quarter ending March 30.
And public shareholders won't really control Classmates. After the IPO, United Online will retain more than 50 percent of voting power, giving independent shareholders little say over management.
Classmates has little going for it except the buzz surrounding social networks, Facebook in particular. While the talk of a Facebook IPO and VMware's successful offering today may fan the IPO flames, Classmates, if its naked effort to exploit the buzz results in a less-than-stellar offering, could very well throw cold water on others' rush to IPO glory.