A Leap of Faith: LinkedIn

This article is part of our Leap of Faith series, in which Foolish writers each pick a stock to take a chance on for the long term.

Would you pay a premium for shares in a visionary company that is transforming the world of work? Could you overlook scary multiples in order to benefit from a tectonic shift in the way the Web operates? Would you be able to stomach the possibility of losing 50% or more of your investment if things didn't go according to plan?

Those are just some of the questions that prospective investors in LinkedIn (NAS: LNKD) should be asking themselves. Personally, I'd answer "yes" to all three of those questions. I believe LinkedIn is an incredible business that is well-positioned to profit from enormous technological and cultural trends. Valuing this remarkable opportunity may require a leap of faith on the part of the investor, but that doesn't make it any less attractive. If you require greater certainty in your investments, then this idea may not be for you. If, on the other hand, you believe that faith can move mountains, then this one might be worth a look.

Creativity is just connecting things
By now, most people know that LinkedIn is a social networking site for professionals. Its founder, Reid Hoffman, feels that the traditional rules of work have changed, and that everyone must "differentiate or die." In his new book The Start-Up of You, he says, "Networking has been replaced by intelligent network building."

This message is reaching a receptive audience. LinkedIn is adding more than two members every second, and it currently has more than 150 million members. In addition to being able to grow its membership, it is also getting better at engaging its membership. In the most recent quarter, LinkedIn was able to grow unique member visits by 67% year over year, while also increasing member page views by 77% over the same period.

Overall, revenues are growing at a staggering pace. Revenue was up 105% to $167.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2011, and revenue increased 115% to $522.2 million for all of 2011. Its "Hiring Solutions" products, which target employers, increased 136% to $84.9 million in the fourth quarter of 2011. These products now account for 50% of total revenue. LinkedIn is performing very well at the moment, and it appears to have created an attractive business model.

The price of everything
Most of LinkedIn's critics would probably concede that it's a promising business, but many have strong reservations about its current valuation. Currently, LinkedIn has a market cap of $8.9 billion, and its recent net income for 2011 was $11.9 million. This compares with Netflix (NAS: NFLX) -- one of the great growth stories of the last decade -- which has a market cap of only $6.2 billion and net income of $226 million for 2011.

Around the time of LinkedIn's IPO in May 2011, Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at NYU and leading authority on security valuation, valued LinkedIn at $47 per share. And after taking into account different share classes, his estimate dropped into the 20s. LinkedIn currently trades for about $90 per share.

Damodaran's model assumes 50% compounded revenue growth over the next five years. As we've seen, LinkedIn's revenue growth during year one turned out to be 115%. His valuation also assumes that LinkedIn will have a smaller potential market than will Microsoft's (NAS: MSFT) Skype. He also believes that LinkedIn's revenues, over the next 10 years, will not be as large as Yahoo!'s (NAS: YHOO) recent annual revenue, which was $6 billion in 2010.

Those seem like prudent assumptions, and I have the greatest respect for Professor Damodaran's analytical abilities. On this occasion, however, I think his model misses something big.

Something massive and effective
Damodaran's model might make sense if LinkedIn were a run-of-the-mill job website. But I believe it is much, much more than that. Reid Hoffman passionately makes the case that there is a "new Web stirring," and that the next era will be driven by data. LinkedIn, with its 150 million (and growing) members will be able to leverage an enormous amount of data over the coming years. Hoffman says, "The thing I'm working on with LinkedIn is to create something massive and effective; the strategy horizon is three to five years."

On the recent conference call, CEO Jeff Weiner said that he is seeing a meaningful data advantage coming from its platform. This data advantage has allowed LinkedIn's "Hiring Solutions" business to become disruptive to the recruiting industry. Weiner also noted that Cisco (NAS: CSCO) recently chose LinkedIn to assist it in targeting C-level executives because it was the "ideal platform to target against titles and seniority." For LinkedIn, data is perhaps its most valuable asset.

TheNew York Times recently ran a piece titled "The Age of Big Data." It argued there's no turning back from this emerging and important trend, and concluded that "Data is in the driver's seat. It's there, it's useful and it's valuable, even hip." I think it's very clear that Google, Facebook, and other big data-driven companies will benefit enormously from this revolution in the way we leverage information. With more than 150 million increasingly engaged members, I believe strongly that LinkedIn will be one of the big winners as well.

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See what other stocks are getting our Foolish writers to swing for the fences; click back to the series intro for links to the entire series.

At the time thisarticle was published John Reeves owns share of Google. You can follow him on Twitter where he goes by @TMFBane.The Motley Fool owns shares of Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Yahoo, and LinkedIn. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of LinkedIn, Microsoft, Netflix, and Yahoo. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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