Facebook says 'da' to Russian investor
Financier Alexander Tamas explains the logic behind Digital Sky Technologies' $200 million investment in Web site.
CARLSBAD, Calif. (Fortune) -- Even before the official kickoff of the seventh annual annual "D: All Things Digital" conference, Facebook was making waves at the event: Hours after the company announced a $200 million cash infusion from Digital Sky Technologies that values the social media site at $10 billion, Digital Sky partner Alexander Tamas was making the rounds at the Four Seasons Aviara resort and talking up his latest deal.
I caught up with Tamas, along with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Washington Post chairman and CEO Don Graham. Tamas' Digital Sky is based in Moscow and London, and its recent investment in Facebook gives the investment firm a roughly 2% stake in the company.
Tamas says he believes Facebook is worth every cent of the $10 billion valuation. He says he flew to Palo Alto for his first meeting with Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg several months ago and walked away certain Facebook would be the most important global Internet company.
"A lot of this is about Mark," he said, a grin spreading from ear to ear. "He is somebody who wants to build a real business." It's a sentiment most of Facebook's investors have expressed, and Graham, an unabashed Zuckerberg fan, nodded vigorously beside Tamas.
Despite the down economy, Facebook has had no shortage of interested investors. Sandberg reiterates the company wasn't proactively searching for money - and insists Facebook doesn't need the funds to maintain its operations. "We always were open to the right opportunities and the right partnership," she said. "And they have good experience across different types of properties."
Indeed, Tamas and his team will bring invaluable knowledge about doing business in Russia and Eastern Europe, where companies are testing different types of business models for social networks. Digital Sky Technologies has investments in several of the largest Internet companies in Russia so the partners are able to evaluate not one strategy, but several strategies in the Russian market place.
"The mistake people are making here is to say display advertising does not work in social networking," said Tamas, describing the American marketplace. "That is true, but what does work is much more intelligent ads. It's much more like television. People have not taken advantage of what Internet as a medium can do."
And he's not focused solely on advertising. Tamas has a good deal of experience with both virtual goods and different payment models. As Facebook builds out its business, the company must learn as much as possible about different revenue streams.
Of course, the $10 billion valuation may seem high in the current economy. But it is a good deal less than the $15 billion value attached to Microsoft's $240 million investment for a 1.6% percent stake in the company. Sandberg points out that economic conditions were fairly different a year and a half ago and adds that that was before she arrived at the company. Also: Microsoft's investment was in large part strategic.
But valuations are hard to arrive at. Which brings us back to Silicon Valley's other hot social media property: Twitter. What does the Facebook crew think about it?
Sandberg is diplomatic, noting "the world is moving to real-time sharing" and saying there's room for a number of players.
Tamas is more direct in his opinion of the emerging Twitterverse.
"It's a very interesting company and has interesting potential - but it's in a completely different league," Tamas said. He'd better hope he's right about Facebook's primacy: After all, he has more than $200 million riding on it.