Mark Zuckerberg's startup project bets the company - Reuters | Digital Marketing Technology| Digital Marketing Trends

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is seen as he testifies remotely during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation hearing to discuss "reforming Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act," which protects internet companies, on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., October 28, 2020.

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WASHINGTON, Feb 2 (Reuters Breakingviews) - Mark Zuckerberg is acting like a startup founder again. Facebook owner Meta Platforms (FB.O) is spending like a newbie company on nascent virtual- and augmented-reality worlds. It has already signaled a $10 billion hit to 2021 operating profit from these investments. The co-founder has huge resources, but reinventing an 18-year-old firm is a real-world challenge.

Zuckerberg, who controls the nearly $900 billion company with supervoting shares, is going all-in. In October, Facebook changed its parent company name to reflect its dive into the unproven, immersive virtual world known as the metaverse read more . The performance of the company’s unit focused on that area, Facebook Reality Labs, will be broken out for the first time in its fourth-quarter earnings report on Wednesday.

As in any startup, the metaverse push will initially lose money. Analysts estimate fourth-quarter revenue at Meta of $33 billion, an almost 20% bump from the same period in 2020. But Zuckerberg said in October that investments in augmented and virtual reality would cut into last year's operating income, a metric which came in at $33 billion for 2020 and analysts estimate at $47 billion for 2021, according to Refinitiv. He said there would be more spending over several years with no profit anticipated for some time.

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Unlike a scrappy newcomer, Meta has mature cash cows that can easily fund its ambitions. Digital marketing read more , basically advertising on its social networks, made up 97.5% of its top line in the third quarter of 2021, a period in which free cash flow hit nearly $10 billion.

But Meta lacks the singular focus of a startup. The leap into the metaverse could alienate people in its money-making divisions. Reality Labs is expected to hire thousands, and employees at Facebook and Instagram are also being encouraged to join, leaving some workers questioning their place at the company, according to the New York Times.

At the same time, those apps remain under scrutiny over some of their content and face continual threats, including competition from viral video app TikTok and technological hurdles like Apple’s (AAPL.O) recent tracking restrictions.

Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL.O) also has a division for the cofounders' passion projects, like self-driving cars. But no one is suggesting any of those are the company's future. In doing so with the metaverse read more , Zuckerberg is essentially betting the farm.

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(The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

CONTEXT NEWS

- Meta Platforms, owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is scheduled to report 2021 fourth-quarter earnings on Feb. 2 after U.S. markets close. Analysts on average expect revenue of $33.4 billion, which would be a 19% increase from the same period in 2020, according to Refinitiv data.

- Meta Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in October that the company would start breaking out the financial performance of its Reality Labs unit, which is focused on augmented and virtual reality. He said investments in those areas would reduce the company's overall 2021 operating profit by $10 billion. In 2020, operating profit was $32.7 billion.

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Editing by Richard Beales and Sharon Lam

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