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Everyone knows Skype as the original Voice 2.0 company – providing free phone calls, free video, status updates, all delivered using an innovative peer-to-peer architecture, and with the unique selling point of VoIP that just worked. This report describes its business model, technology strategy, its acquisition by Microsoft, and the consequences for the telecoms industry.
Founded in 2003 by Janus Friis and Niklas Zennström, Skype was acquired by eBay in 2005 for $2.6bn. eBay ownership was a period of stagnation – although eBay also owns PayPal, it only made half-hearted efforts to integrate the two. In November 2009, eBay sold 65% of Skype to an investor group led by Silver Lake for approximately $1.9bn in cash, valuing Skype at $2.75bn.
With Skype preparing for an IPO, Microsoft announced in May 2011 that it had agreed to buy the company for $8.5bn, giving the investor group a massive return and ensuring future potentially-disruptive start-ups will also attract plenty of funding. Many commentators have suggested that Microsoft is paying too much for the VOIP company, although the price-earnings ratio is actually no higher than that of Cisco’s acquisition of WebEx. So, what exactly is Microsoft getting for its billions? Let’s take a closer look.
Microsoft has acquired what is essentially a global telephony company with 663 million registered users and very significant gross profitability. Skype contributed more net new minutes of international voice than the rest of the industry put together in 2010, according to Telegeography. Skype has never struggled to achieve growth, but its profitability has often been criticised, as has its ability to generate growth in ARPU. The following chart (figure 1) summarises Skype’s operational key performance indicators (KPIs) since 2006.
Figure 1: Skype’s KPIs: users, usage, and ARPU
Source: Skype’s S-1, May 2011
Questions have been raised about Skype’s performance in converting registered or even active users into paying users. This is critical, as ARPU is relatively flat. However, a monthly ARPU for paying users of $8 would be considered very reasonable for an emerging-market GSM operator and such an operator would tie up far more capital than Skype does. As all Skype users contribute to the system’s peer-to-peer (P2P) infrastructure, the marginal cost of serving non-paying users is essentially nothing.
Another way of looking at the KPIs is to consider their growth rates, as we have done in the following chart (figure 2). Although the growth of paying users is nowhere near as fast as that of free minutes of use, 40% growth per annum in revenue-generating subscribers is still very impressive.
Figure 2: Growth rates of Skype KPIs.
Source: Skype’s S-1, May 2011
In fact, there is very little wrong with Skype at the operating level. The following chart (figure 3) shows that, if we consider the primary challenge for Skype to be converting free users into paying users, it is actually doing rather well. Revenue and EBITDA are advancing and margins are holding up well.
With 509 million active users available for conversion, ARPU may not be that relevant – just converting users of the free service into paying users has so far provided strong growth in gross profits and could do for the foreseeable future.
Figure 4: Conversion of free users at steady ARPU drives gross profit.
Skype doesn't make money on free calls (not even from advertising or customer analytics/insights, yet), and has to pay interconnection fees and operate some infrastructure in order to provide SkypeOut (calls to conventional telephone numbers, rather than other Skype clients), and SkypeIn (calls from the PSTN to Skype users).
Skype sceptics have argued that eventually termination charges will catch up with the company and destroy its profitability. It is true that most of Skype’s revenues are generated (over 80%) by SkypeOut call charges and that Skype’s cost of net revenue is dominated (over 60%) by the cost of terminating these calls. However, termination as a percentage of Skype’s cost of net revenue is falling and Skype’s gross margin is rising, as its enormous volume growth enables it to extract better bulk pricing from interconnect operators (see Figure 5).
To see Figure 5, the conclusion of our analysis of Skype's finances, and...
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Organisations, products and people referenced in the report: 3UK, AdSense, Android, Apple, AT&T, Au, Avaya, Ben Horowitz, BlackBerry Messenger, Cisco, Dynamics CRM, EasyBits, eBay, Exchange Server, Facebook, Facetime, Google, Google Talk, Google Voice, GSMA, Happy Pipe, Hutchison, iOS, iPhone, Jajah, Janus Friis, KDDI Mobile, Kinect, KPN, Lync, Mango, Marchex, Microsoft, Microsoft-Nokia deal, MXit, MySpace, Niklas Zennström, Nokia, Ofcom, Office Live, Outlook, PayPal, PowerPoint, Qik, RIM, Silver Lake, Skype, SkypeConnect, SkypeIn, SkypeKit, SkypeOut, SkypePhone, Steve Ballmer, Telefonica, Teredo, Tony Jacobs, Tropo, Twitter, Verizon Wireless, Virgin, Visual Studio, WebEx, WhatsApp, Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, WP7, Xbox, X-Series.
Technologies referenced: GSM, HD voice, HTTP/S, IM, IMS MMTel, IP networks, IPv4, IPv6, LTE, Mobile, NAT, P2P, PSTN, RCS, SILK V3, SIP, SMS, SS7, super node, URI, video telephony, Voice 2.0, VoIP, XMPP.