how tech giants make their billions

How the Tech Giants Make Their Billions

Initially, you might think that the world is being dominated by technology giants. Indeed, it may seem like the world’s biggest technology companies have a lot in common, well not all is as you would think.

The Big Five Tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet) have become established as some of the most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, with founders such as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates hitting the top spot on the global billionaire list.

Most of the tech giants have millions if not billions of people using their platforms globally. These companies have created the scale and size of businesses that make it hard for others to compete. There are few if any companies now that could scale to the same size and offer the same breadth of products as Amazon.

Each of the big tech companies has one thing in common though. They all leverage user data to create personalised and tailored services. In fact, many handle our most sensitive data on a daily basis. At the same time, this data is a double-edged sword, as these same companies often find themselves in the crosshairs for mishandling personal information.

Finally, all of these companies have a similar origin story: they were founded or incubated on the fertile digital grounds of the West Coast of the USA. The company that has the weakest claim to such origins would be Facebook, but even it has been based in Silicon Valley since June 2004.

The Size Of The Tech Giants

For all of their commonalities, it seems that there is less of a mold for how these tech giants end up generating cashflow.

To start with let’s do a roundup of their financials. The following data comes from the 2018 10-K reports filed last year.

CompanyRevenue (2018)Net Income (2018)Margin
Apple$265.6 billion$59.5 billion22.4%
Amazon$232.9 billion$10.1 billion4.3%
Alphabet$136.8 billion$30.7 billion22.4%
Microsoft$110.4 billion$16.6 billion15.0%
Facebook$55.8 billion$22.1 billion39.6%
Combined$801.5 billion$139.0 billion17.3%

Together, the Big Five tech giants together account for a staggering turnover of over $800 billion of revenue in 2018. This would put them among the world’s 20 largest countries in terms of GDP. More precisely, they would just be ahead of Saudi Arabia ($684 billion GDP) in terms of size.

Meanwhile, they generated a total of $139 billion of net income for their shareholders, at a 17.3% profit margin.

How Big Tech Makes Money

Let’s dig deeper, and see the differences in how these companies generate their revenue.

You are the Customer and You Are The Data

In the broadest sense, three of the tech giants make money in the same way: you pay them money, and they give you a product or service.

Apple (Revenue in 2018: $265.6 billion)

  • Apple generates a staggering 62.8% of its revenue from the iPhone
  • The iPad and Mac are good for 7.1% and 9.6% of revenues, respectively
  • All other products and services – including Apple TV, Apple Watch, Beats products, Apple Pay, AppleCare, etc. – combine to just 20.6% of revenues

Amazon (Revenue in 2018: $232.9 billion)

  • Amazon gets the most from its online stores (52.8%) as well as third-party seller services (18.4%)
  • Amazon’s fastest-growing segment is offline sales in physical stores
  • Offline sales generate $17.2 billion in current revenue, growing 197% year-over-year
  • Amazon Web Services (AWS) is well-known for being Amazon’s most profitable segment, and it counts for 11.0% of revenue
  • Amazon’s “Other” segment is also rising fast – it mainly includes ad sales

Microsoft (Revenue in 2018: $110.4 billion)

  • Microsoft has the most diversified revenue of any of the tech giants
  • This is part of the reason it currently has the largest market capitalization ($901 billion) of the Big Five
  • Microsoft has eight different segments that generate ~5% or more of revenue
  • The biggest three are “Office products and cloud services” (25.7%), “Server products and cloud services” (23.7%), and Windows (17.7%)

The remaining tech giants charge you nothing as a consumer, so how are they worth so much?

You are the Product – It’s Your Data

Both Alphabet and Facebook generate billions of dollars of revenue, but they make this money from advertising. Each time you update your profile on Facebook or search on Google, they use this information to target ads. These platforms allow advertisers to target you at scale with incredible precision, which is why they now dominate the online ad industry.

Here’s how their revenues break down:

Alphabet (Revenue in 2018: $136.8 billion)

  • Despite having a wider umbrella name, ad revenue (via Google, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Ads, etc.) still drives 85% of revenue for the company
  • Other Google products and services, like Google Play or the Google Pixel phone, help to generate 14.5% of total revenue
  • Other Bets count to 0.4% of revenue – these are Alphabet’s moonshot attempts to find the “next Google” for its shareholders

Facebook (Revenue in 2018: $55.8 billion)

  • Facebook generates almost all revenue (98.5%) from ads
  • Meanwhile, 1.5% comes from payments and other fees
  • Despite Facebook being a free service for users, the company generated more revenue per user than Netflix, which charges for its service
  • In 2018 Q4, for example, Facebook made $35 per user. Netflix made $30.
how tech giant make their billions

So while the tech giants may have many similarities, how they generate their billions can vary considerably.

Some are marketing products to you, while others are marketing you as the product.

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