Snap, the parent company of the ephemeral messaging service Snapchat, outstripped expectations for its stock market debut Thursday, closing at $24.48 per share. That means the social network once thought of mostly as a tool for sending naughty pictures is now worth approximately $28 billion -- more than Macy's and American Airlines's as of Thursday.
The IPO was a great success for co-founders Evan Speigel and Bobby Murphy, who founded the company in 2011 out of their Stanford University dorm rooms. Now both are billionaires before the age of 30.
The company saw a healthy pop in its first moments of trading, opening at $24 -- roughly 40 percent higher than the company's price of $17 per share, and far higher than the company's original $14-$16 range.
The higher trading price demonstrated the great demand Snap had for its initial public offering. Some are hoping that Snap's debut can revive a lagging IPO market, as Barron's reported, and encourage other tech firms to make their debuts.
Experts said the excited reaction to the Snap debut could easily nudge firms on the fence about going public into the market. "If you're anywhere within the neighborhood of going public, you might as well go and catch some of the money that people are throwing around," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at tech analysis firm Enderle Group. Enderle compared the excitement over an unprofitable company to the heady days of the dot-com boom.
While Snap had a fairly successful debut, the question now is whether it can keep that momentum. In the long-term, will Snap look more like a Facebook, a Twitter, or will it carve its own path?
Social media firms that have gone public have had checkered success. Facebook recovered from a glitch-marred debut -- it closed at its opening price of $38 -- and initial skepticism about its ability to make money by creating a mobile advertising behemoth. Twitter, on the other hand, closed well above its $26 IPO price at $44.90. But it has disappointed investors worried about its growth and lack of revenue; on Thursday it closed at $15.49 per share.
Some analysts say Snapchat's appeal, and particularly its engagement numbers, justify its valuation and make it a good candidate for succeeding more in the vein of Facebook -- which famously tried to buy the network for a now paltry looking sum of $3 billion in 2013.
Snapchat supporters point to the company's loyal user base of 158 million people, who use it to send 2.5 billion messages every day, according to the company's regulatory filings. While Snap has yet to profit off that popularity, it is growing its revenue, which was $404.5 million in 2016, an substantial increase from the $59 million it logged in 2015.
The firm has invested substantially in working with media partners, including The Washington Post, to deliver news and analysis to its predominately young audience. Its growth has, to this point, also been largely driven by younger users in the coveted 18-35 demographic, who spend over 30 minutes on it per day, according to the company's filing.
Those bullish on Snap say that it's mastered the art of meeting its audience where they are. "Snap Inc. has figured out how to capitalize on the short attention span of younger generations and to create meaningful engagement experiences with friends, family and even celebrities and brands," said Greg Ng, VP of Digital Engagement at the social media consultancy PointSource.
But other analysts caution that Snap looks decidedly Twitteresque -- at least for now.
James Gellert, chief executive of the analysis firm Rapid Ratings said, Snap is in a weaker position at this point in its development than Facebook, which has had considerable post-IPO success. When it comes to Snap's financials and its vision for the future, he said, it has far more in common in Twitter at the point of IPO than Facebook.
The company hasn't turned a profit, for example -- and has cautioned that it may never make a profit. It also hasn't articulated a clear path to how it will continue to make money. In fact, Gellert noted, Snap has said that it actually expects to spend more money in the coming years to continue growing.
Snap also runs some risk of getting the wind taken out of its sails by competitors as analyst Brian Wieser of Pivotal wrote in a research note to investors. He assigned Snap a "sell" rating and said he assessed its value at $1o per share. "It has a promising and innovative advertising offering, but so far it is still mostly unproven and difficult to quantify its ultimate scale," he said. It's also competing with enormous companies for advertising dollars, he said, particularly highlighting Facebook and Google.
Facebook -- and its sibling network, Instagram -- poses a particularly strong challenge. Analysis from the research firm 7Park Data suggests that the launch of Instagram's Snapchat-like Stories feature hurt Snapchat's growth. Snapchat's daily users fell off after Instagram introduced its version Stories, indicating that Snapchat's user base can be lured away.
Gellert, who expected Snap to crackle with a post-IPO pop, said that a good market debut ultimately doesn't tell you much about the company -- just that tech-focused investors are hungry to get their hands on something new. In his eyes, Snap has a way to go to prove itself as a stable investment.
“Snap is relatively young and it's yet to generate profits. The typical IPO tech investor will say that's fine and it doesn't matter,” he said. Long-term investors, however, may not be so forgiving.