Why Facebook borrowed $100 million for servers

Technologists are instinctively averse to debt. The cycles are too swift and mistakes too punishing, the conventional wisdom says, to subject a startup to the burden of debt; cash is better spent on growth opportunities than interest. But Facebook has never followed the usual script for a startup, and its CFO, Gideon Yu, is no herd-follower, either. No wonder that the news that Facebook is leasing $100 million worth of servers, after raising a $360 million round of venture capital from Microsoft and Li Ka-Shing, is causing such a ruckus — and some misconceptions. Here are the instant myths that have arisen:

  • Facebook is borrowing money. Actually, no. Facebook's $100 million is a lease, not a loan. Facebook is on the hook for rent payments, and will have the option to buy the equipment at the end of the lease. But technically, it's not on the hook for the $100 million. That said, it's hard to imagine how, at the end of the lease, Facebook functions without the servers it's renting. What Facebook is doing with the lease is delaying the day it has to buy its servers outright.
  • Facebook is borrowing money because it can't sell its equity. Henry Blodget of Silicon Alley Insider put forward this theory. In moments like these, one wonders less why the former stock analyst was barred from the securities industry. A venture lease like Facebook's usually requires an "equity kicker" — warrants to purchase stock, the corporate version of the stock options employees get. In this case, Facebook negotiated a warrant-free deal, but it's given TriplePoint warrants in the past. So Facebook's lender, TriplePoint, is betting that Facebook's equity is worth something; it wouldn't have offered it leases in the past otherwise. A warrant-free deal may not be great for TriplePoint, but it's great for Facebook.
  • Facebook won't know what to do with all those servers. This is the most nonsensical theory of all. Facebook isn't renting servers for the workaday business of displaying webpages and photos. While it needs some more servers to keep up with site growth, the main reason it needs so many servers, I believe, is that it's planning to use them on the massive job of analyzing data to target advertising and content to its users.
  • Gideon Yu must be an idiot. We've ribbed Yu for being a bit slick. But as YouTube's CFO, Yu negotiated the company's sale to Google for $1.65 billion. Shall we not give him some small amount of credit for knowing what he's doing?

And as for that bromide about tech companies not incurring debt? In the form of leases, they do it all the time, from landlords and hardware makers. Even startups lease their offices, and IBM, HP, Dell, Sun and others have large financing arms that help put equipment in customers' hands without money upfront. Save for the size of this deal and the name of the renter, TriplePoint's lease would have been wholly unremarkable.

There is one question that remains: How TriplePoint will come up with the money. This is reportedly the largest deal the lender has ever financed. Let's take TriplePoint at its word, though. The company's website says it has says it has "the capacity to put more than $1.5 billion to work" — curiously hedged wording. Note that TriplePoint doesn't actually say it has $1.5 billion on hand to lend. But that's TriplePoint's problem, not Facebook's.