Television cameramen walk away from a sign in front of the Facebook headquarters… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)
Reporting from San Francisco — Now it's Facebook's turn to share.
The social networking giant that coaxes 845 million people to divulge the most intimate details about their lives is one step closer to cashing in on its meteoric rise in what could be the largest initial public offering to come out of Silicon Valley.
Facebook Inc. filed papers Wednesday with the goal of raising $5 billion in a public stock sale that could come in May. The offering would be the largest among Internet companies, eclipsing Google Inc. in 2004 and Netscape Communications in 1995. Depending on demand, the company could be valued between $75 billion and $100 billion.
But in opening itself up for the first time, the famously secretive company also revealed the tough road ahead as it looks to continue its breakneck growth streak while fighting off competitors. In its own words, Facebook said it has to allay concerns of privacy watchdogs and government regulators around the globe while maintaining the loyalty of users as new user growth slows.
The regulatory filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also unveiled the collective wealth that could be bestowed on the founder and many of his employees. The IPO could be a bonanza for Mark Zuckerberg, the 27-year-old founder, who owns 28.2% of the company and is its single largest shareholder. His stake could be worth as much as $28 billion, earning him the ninth spot on Forbes' list of richest Americans and putting him in the same league as Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates and Oracle Corp.'s Larry Ellison.
The SEC filing provided a telling glimpse into Facebook's finances and operations eight years after Zuckerberg hatched the social network in his Harvard dorm room.
Revenue in 2011 surged 88% to $3.71 billion. About 85% of that revenue came from advertising. Net income rose by nearly two-thirds to $1 billion.
The Menlo Park, Calif., company may ultimately debut with a market value topping $100 billion and a giant war chest for an increasingly competitive future as it takes on Google and other rivals to become the company that dominates the social Web.
Investors say Facebook so far is on an "incredible trajectory," but urged caution. "Can Facebook continue to grow this fast? That is the question," said Michael A. Yoshikami, chief executive of wealth management firm YCMNET Advisors.
Joe Magyer, advisor and senior analyst with the Motley Fool, estimates that investors would be buying Facebook for 25 times sales when they could buy Google at five times sales, equivalent to setting money on fire without striking a match.
"Facebook is a tremendous business with a lot of growth ahead of it. But it's going to have to do amazing things for a long time to justify the kind of price it is going public at," Magyer said. "It's going to be very difficult for Facebook to live up to the hype."
Uncertain prospects for the future are unlikely to quell demand. On the Web, Facebook's registration statement could not have generated more interest if Aaron Sorkin had written it. In 2004, interest in Google's prospectus nearly crashed the SEC's servers.
"To call Facebook the 800-pound gorilla is an understatement," said IPO Boutique's Scott Sweet. "Investors will line up out the door and around the corner to get in on this IPO."
The frenzy to own a piece of Facebook — already topping $80 billion on private trading exchanges — promises to get even more clamorous, said Yoshikami, who likened it to Black Friday.
"Facebook is the equivalent of the $199 flat-panel LCD at Wal-Mart," Yoshikami said.
Facebook has everything that its famous predecessors Netscape and Google had: legions of loyal users, high-caliber engineers and executives, top-flight technology, loads of promise — and something more: vastly more information than any other company has ever possessed about its users that advertisers can tap.
That's the currency that Facebook is trading in, and investors are banking there is plenty of money to be made from that rich hoard of information as long as Facebook can make inroads on Madison Avenue and sidestep the privacy concerns of users and regulators.
Critics say users don't need friends like Facebook.
"Facebook is incredibly greedy with our personal information. It wants to own us and our online identity," said Andrew Keen, author of the upcoming book "Digital Vertigo," who calls himself the founding member of what he calls the "Facebook resistance." "There is nothing altruistic about it. This is a pure financial play. Tech workers and investors are going to become obscenely rich."
Facebook's Achilles' heel is privacy. It has repeatedly alienated users and in November settled with the Federal Trade Commission over accusations that it deceived users about their privacy settings. Pressure from regulators in Washington and Brussels will only grow when Facebook becomes a publicly traded company.