Weibo Chairman on IPO: 'We're here for the long term'

April 17, 2014: 12:12 PM ET

The Chinese social networking startup priced low but traded up.

FORTUNE -- The market for tech stocks might be volatile now, but for Chinese social networking company Weibo (WB), that won't matter a year from now. The company, which made its public market debut on NASDAQ this afternoon, is selling itself on a long-term growth story that includes a continued push for revenue from mobile and commerce. The company raised $286 million, valuing it at $3.46 billion; shares priced at at $17 each, the very bottom of the company's range. It kicked off below market at $16.27 per share, but shares immediately traded up by more than 10% to $18.79 at the time of publication.

Fortune spoke with Chairman Charles Chao before the shares started trading this morning.

Weibo has posted widening quarterly losses over prior years. Will the losses continue to grow? When will that trend reverse itself?

If you look at our history, we have been in business for a little bit over four years, but if you look at our numbers, they keep improving as a margin of the growth in revenue over the last few years. Given the opportunity we are facing, and given the market competition, we intend to increase spending in terms of marketing for user growth and engagement, and in product development to become more advanced and more differentiated.

So we intend to invest more this year and next year, and in that way, our operating margin might be under more pressure. But for us, it's to create a much bigger scale, and if we do that, then we can create a much bigger margin. Longer term we will have much higher margins, but shorter term, it might be lower margins.

What is biggest bright spot in business?

There are a lot of bright points -- it's the leading social media platform with a lot of users and engagement, and more importantly, it is becoming a dominant social media platform on mobile, which is the future. As you know everybody is moving to mobile and the mobile usage is growing rapidly in China. This will make us a social platform with a lot of scale, especially in mobile, and will give us a lot of advantages in developing new business models around mobile moving forward. For example, we're also trying to establish an ecosystem for e-commerce and we're doing this in partnership with Alibaba.

What percentage of your business is mobile versus desktop?

For usage, it's about 70% coming from mobile on a daily basis. About 80% of our revenue is from advertising, including display and our performance-based advertising system. For display advertising, more is coming from desktop, but the performance-based advertising that's in the information feed -- that is parallel to traffic, 70% from mobile and 30% desktop.

Overall 28% of revenue come from mobile last year, and I think that mobile will continue to grown as we generate more revenue from in-feed advertising.

Did you consider delaying the IPO given the tech stock sell-off of recent weeks?

I think we did not anticipate this kind of market conditions when we started this process. It just happened to be that way. Obviously this is not the optimal market condition for an IPO, but I think given our history, we believe that the entry point for an IPO sometimes can be challenging but it really doesn't matter for the long term. We're here for the long term and believe we can keep scaling up. The entry point will only determine how much cash we get for this transaction, which is not our ultimate concern because we have a lot of cash already. More importantly, we want to establish ourselves as an independent company.

Was the timing of this IPO related in any way to Facebook's blockbuster deal for WhatsApp?

No. We started the process towards the end of last year and there was no talking about that particular deal, but the Facebook deal indicates there is a tremendous opportunity in mobile and messaging. We also provide a messaging service and fundamentally Weibo is a social messaging platform on mobile. We provide communications to obtain information and to talk to each other efficiently and we believe this is the future.

How do you convince investors that censorship is not a risk factor?

I think it's a risk factor in the prospectus, but the censorship thing is kind of an over-concern among investors or in general among the population outside of China.

In any culture, there is a degree of censorship in terms of how the laws and regulations regulate how we control communications on the Internet, and the concern is over-exaggerated in a way. We have been very experienced in dealing with these issues and we always try to comply with the laws and regulations so we don't get in trouble with our platform as a company there. We are very good at doing that and have a lot of experience doing that.

Do Twitter comparisons hurt or help your company? Twitter has traded down this year.

A lot of times people compare us to Twitter (TWTR). They believe we're the same kind of company, except we only operate in China. In a sense, that is true, there was a lot of similarities in the product and features and functionality, but also these two social platforms can be very different. For example, 140 Chinese characters can incorporate much more meaning than 140 English characters. It means a lot more – so the behavior on the platform will differ significantly because of that difference. And from the very beginning, we have had multi-media functionality in the information feed, and we were mobile from the very beginning. We are actually leading a lot of innovations in this particular sector and our product is much more sticky. Our influence is much bigger in China than other social media platforms in other countries. In terms of penetration and impacting society, Weibo is very different.

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