Facebook: No superpowers

July 27, 2012: 8:03 AM ET

As one analyst put it, the social network's results were good, but there were no longer many superheroes to be seen. In other words, life at Facebook is changing.

FORTUNE -- Now you know why Zuck never wanted to take Facebook public.

Running Facebook (FB) not too long ago, say before February, must have been tons of fun. The it Silicon Valley company was experiencing runaway growth, attracting the best talent and delivering products that were changing the world. The headlines were uniformly glowing.

That was then. It's summertime now, and the living can't be easy for Mark Zuckerberg & Co.

The headlines have turned relentlessly negative since Facebook's botched IPO in May. The questions about the strength of its business model have only multiplied. Do social ads work? Will Facebook figure out how to make money on mobile? Will growth continue?

And now comes Facebook's first earnings report as a public company. By hitting Wall Street's projections, Facebook essentially left most of those questions unanswered. Zuckerberg must be saying "phew." He must be elated that things did not turn out worse -- just ask his cohort Mark Pincus over at Zynga (ZNGA). But his investors -- and it is not clear what they expected -- aren't exactly cheering. Facebook shares dropped more than 14% Friday to an all time low. That's after dropping 8.5% in regular trading following Zynga's epic earnings miss a day earlier.

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You could argue that Zuck, with his control of a majority of Facebook's voting shares, doesn't need to worry about pesky investors. And in a sense he doesn't. But Zuck now has 4,000 employees to answer to -- and many more he hopes to recruit -- and they all care about Facebook's stock price, the negative press, and to some extent, the disaffected shareholders. Zuck, and his COO Sheryl Sandberg, has advertisers to court, and they all care about the effectiveness of ads and the transition to mobile.

So Zuckerberg had to spend a good amount of time in recent days prepping for (and attending) Facebook's first earnings call as a public company. For a guy who has always seen business as a distraction and has always preferred to focus on the Facebook product, it must have been as pleasant as root canal.

To be fair, he was well prepared. He educated investors about the evolution of Facebook service, discussed its potential and spoke of the company's relentless focus on three areas: mobile, the platform and ads. He refrained, wisely, from rah rah statement so frequent in earnings call. He answered questions with poise, sounding much like a CEO. And he even did something few chief executives do during financial presentations: he made news by pouring cold water on persistent rumors that Facebook plans to build a phone. While Facebook is looking to integrate its services more deeply into mobile devices, Zuckerberg said: "Building out a whole phone would not make much sense for us to do."

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Now back to those financial results. They were hardly bad. Revenue rose 32% to $1.18 billion, just beating forecasts. The accounting hit from stock compensation was blamed for a net loss of $157 million for the quarter. Excluding those charges, Facebook earned 12 cents a share, in linewith expectations. "It turns out they wear hoodies at Facebook headquarters, not capes," says Jordan Rohan, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. "The results were good but there were no superheroes here."

That, perhaps, is the problem. By many measures, Facebook shares are still priced as if the company had superpowers. But all that Facebook has is a large, fast-growing business with roughly equal amounts of long term potential and uncertainty. That's not bad. But it's certainly not enough to take the pressure off of Zuck and his team any time soon.

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About This Author
Miguel Helft
Miguel Helft
Senior Writer, Fortune

Miguel Helft is a San Francisco-based Senior Writer at FORTUNE, where he covers Silicon Valley. He joined FORTUNE in August 2011 following a 5-year stint as a reporter at The New York Times covering companies like Apple, Facebook and Google. His knowledge of Silicon Valley and the tech world runs deep. He worked as a software engineer at Sun Microsystems in the late-1980s, and for the past 15 years, he has chronicled major industry events -- from the Microsoft antitrust trial to the dot-com boom and bust - at publications like the Industry Standard, the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times. Born and raised in Argentina, Helft emigrated to the U.S. to attend Stanford University, where he earned a BA in Philosophy and a Master's in Computer Science.


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