How the Tech Giants Make Their Billions
At a glance, it may seem like the world’s biggest technology companies have a lot in common.
For starters, all five of the Big Tech companies (Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Alphabet) have emerged as some of the most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world, with founders such as Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates sitting atop the global billionaire list.
These tech giants also have a consumer-facing aspect to their business that is front and center. With billions of people using their platforms globally, these companies leverage user data to tighten their grip even more on market share. 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. 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.
Sizing Up 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.
But before we get to how Big Tech makes its money, let’s start by looking at the financials at a higher level. The following data comes from the 2018 10-K reports filed last year.
|Company||Revenue (2018)||Net Income (2018)||Margin|
|Combined||$801.5 billion||$139.0 billion||17.3%|
|Apple||$265.6 billion||$59.5 billion||22.4%|
|Amazon||$232.9 billion||$10.1 billion||4.3%|
|Alphabet||$136.8 billion||$30.7 billion||22.4%|
|Microsoft||$110.4 billion||$16.6 billion||15.0%|
|$55.8 billion||$22.1 billion||39.6%|
Together, the Big Five tech giants combined for just over $800 billion of revenue in 2018, which would be among the world’s 20 largest countries in terms of GDP. More precisely, they would just edge out Saudi Arabia ($684 billion GDP) in terms of size.
Meanwhile, they generated a total of $139 billion of net income for their shareholders, good for 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
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
Both Alphabet and Facebook also generate billions of dollars of revenue, but they make this money from advertising. Their platforms allow advertisers to target you at scale with incredible precision, which is why they 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.
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.
Animation: How Tech is Eating the Brand World
Changing consumer expectations have created a harsh environment for traditional brands to operate in—will tech companies make them obsolete?
How Technology is Eating the Brand World
Building a brand with an imperishable competitive edge can be difficult.
Technology companies however, are redefining what that edge means. By hastily responding to emerging consumer needs and leveraging the power of brand, these companies can continuously create meaningful solutions for real problems with scale.
Today’s animated chart highlights the most valuable brands in 2019 versus 2001, according to the annual “Best Global Brands” ranking by Interbrand. It illustrates the degree to which technology companies have been able to scale into massive brands over a short time frame, supplanting some of the best known companies in the world.
What is Brand Value, and How is it Measured?
Interbrand has created and consistently used a robust formula to measure brand value. Brand value is the Net Present Value (NPV) or the present value of the earnings that a brand is forecasted to generate in the future.
The formula evaluates brands based on their financial forecast, brand role, and brand strength. The full methodology can be found here.
Tech Reigns Supreme
In 2001, the cumulative brand value was $988 billion. Today, that value stands at $2.1 trillion and represents an average CAGR of 4.4%. Over the years, global tech giants have swiftly climbed the ranks, and now represent a significant amount of the total brand value.
In fact, with a combined brand value of almost $700 billion, tech companies account for half of the top 10 most valuable brands in the world. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Apple holds the title for the world’s most valuable brand in 2019—for the seventh year running.
Only 31 brands from the 2001 ranking remain on the Best Global Brands list today, including Disney, Nike, and Gucci. Coca-Cola and Microsoft are the few who have remained in the top 10.
Below is the full list of the world’s most valuable brands:
|Rank||Brand||Brand Value ($B)||1-Yr Value Change||Industry|
|#71||Hewlett Packard Enterprise||$8B||-3%||Technology|
|#86||Johnson & Johnson||$6B||-8%||Retail|
|#94||Tiffany & Co||$5B||-5%||Fashion|
Since 2001—the first year the report featured 100 brands—several tech companies have joined and climbed their way to the top of the list, while 137 notable brands dropped off entirely, including Nokia and MTV.
In an interesting turn of events, Facebook dropped out of the top 10, and into 14th place after a volatile year. The move however, is not surprising. The tech giant has been mired in controversies, ranging from data privacy issues to prioritizing political influence.
Which Brands Are Growing the Fastest?
2019’s fastest growing brands also signals tech domination, with Mastercard, Salesforce and Amazon leading the charge.
The companies in this ranking experienced a significant increase in their brand value year-over-year (YoY).
|Rank||Brand||Brand Value ($B)||YoY Growth|
According to Interbrand, the success of these brands may be attributed to their ability to anticipate rapidly changing customer expectations.
While the relationship between business performance and brand equity has been a widely debated topic for decades, it is clear that customer satisfaction bolsters brand equity, and encourages impressive financial results.
Disrupt, or Be Disrupted
Beyond anticipating changing needs, some of the most successful brands also cater to a younger customer base. This is the most evident in luxury and retail—the two fastest growing sectors for the second consecutive year.
This audience is tech-first in their buying habits and increasingly demand more elevated and shareable experiences. As a result, traditional brands across all sectors are innovating to keep up with this audience, and some are essentially becoming tech companies in the process.
For example, Gucci attributes their success to finding the perfect blend between creativity and technology. The company that once relied on its heritage, now focuses heavily on ecommerce and social media to engage with their Gen Z customers.
Similarly, Walmart recently announced that they are employing virtual reality headsets and machine-learning-powered robots in an attempt to compete with Amazon.
Will traditional companies ultimately become tech companies, or simply get eaten alive?
Who Owns Your Favorite News Media Outlet?
A revealing look at consolidation and ownership of news media outlets in the United States. See who owns news media, and where ‘news deserts’ exist.
Who Owns Your Favorite News Media Outlet?
It’s no secret that news media is a tough industry.
For various reasons — from tech disruption to changing media consumption habits — the U.S. has seen a net loss of 1,800 local newspapers over the past 15 years. As regional newspapers are bundled together, and venture-backed digital media brands expand their portfolios, the end result is a trend towards increased consolidation.
Today’s graphic, created by TitleMax, is a broad look at who owns U.S. news media outlets.
Escaping the News Desert
As outlets battle the duopoly of Google and Facebook for advertising revenue, the local news game has become increasingly difficult.
As a result, news deserts have been springing up all over America:
What happens when times get tough?
One option is to simply go out of business, while another traditional solution is to combine forces through consolidation. While not ideal, the latter option at least provides a potential route to revenue and cost synergies that make it easier to compete in a challenging environment.
Nation of Consolidation
Though the numbers have decreased in recent years, regional news media still reaches millions of people each day.
Below is a look at the top 20 owners of America’s newspapers:
|Parent Companies||Total Papers||Example brands|
|New Media Investment Group||451||Patriot Ledger, The Columbus Dispatch, The Providence Journal|
|Gannett||216||USA Today, Detroit Free Press, Arizona Republic|
|Digital First Media||158||Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post|
|Adams Publishing Group||144||The Charlotte Sun, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle|
|CNHI||114||Niagara Gazette, The Huntsville Item, The Lebanon Reporter|
|Lee Enterprises||100||Arizona Daily Sun, St. Louis Post Dispatch|
|Ogden Newspapers||81||The Maui News, The Toledo Chronicle, Salem News|
|Tribune Publishing||77||Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, The Baltimore Sun|
|Berkshire Hathaway Media||75||Buffalo News, Winston-Salem Journal, Omaha World-Herald|
|Shaw Media||71||Suburban Life Magazine, Putnam County Record|
|Boone Newspapers||66||The Austin Daily Herald, The Charlotte Gazette|
|Hearst Corp.||66||San Francisco Chronicle, Seattlepi.com, Houston Chronicle|
|Paxton Media Group||58||Daily Corinthian, Connersville News-Examiner|
|Landmark Media Enterprises||55||Citrus County Chronicle, The News-Enterprise|
|Community Media Group||51||Lafayette Leader, The Wellsboro Gazette|
|AIM Media||50||Odessa American, El Nuevo Heraldo|
|McClatchy||49||Idaho Statesman, Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee|
|Advance Publications||46||The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Wired, The Oregonian, NJ.com|
|Rust Communications||44||Cherokee Chronicle Times, Southeast Missourian|
|News Media Corp.||43||Cheyenne Minuteman, Brookings Register, Newport News Times|
Turnover in this segment of the market has been brisk. In fact, more than half of existing newspapers have changed ownership in the past 15 years, some multiple times. For example, the LA Times is now in the hands of its third owner since 2000, after being purchased by billionaire biotech investor Patrick Soon-Shiong.
The industry may be facing another dramatic drop off in ownership diversity as the two largest players, New Media Investment Group and Gannett, are on the path to merging. If shareholders give the thumbs-up during the vote this November, Gannett will have amassed the largest online audience of any American news provider.
The Flying Vs: Vox and Vice
It isn’t just regional papers being swept up in the latest round of mergers and acquisitions — new media is getting into the mix as well.
Vox Media recently inked a deal to acquire New York Media, the firm behind New York Magazine, Vulture, and The Cut.
I think you’re going to see that trend [of consolidation] across the industry. I just hope it’s done for the right reasons. You see too many of these things done for financial engineering.
– Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media
Meanwhile, Vice recently acquired Refinery29 for $400 million, giving it access to a new audience skewed towards millennial women. This match-up seems awkward on the surface, but it allows advertisers to reach a broader cross-section of people within each ad ecosystem.
Both companies announced layoffs in the past year, and this restructuring may help both companies win as they consolidate resources.
The Bottom Line
While news media isn’t quite as consolidated as the broader media ecosystem, it’s certainly trending in that direction. Thousands of American communities that had local newspapers in 2004 now have no news coverage at all, while remaining papers are increasingly becoming units within an umbrella company, with no direct stake in community reporting.
That said, until the issue of monetization is definitively sorted out, consolidation may be the only way to keep the presses from stopping.
About the Graphic
This list of top 100 news sites was compiled using the following criteria:
– The top “digital-native” news outlets by monthly unique visitors (Pew Research and ComScore, excluding sports)
– The top newspapers by average Sunday circulation (Pew Research and Alliance for Audited Media)
– Alexa’s top sites under the category of news (U.S. only, excluding user-generated)
Note: The graphic has been updated to reflect changes in ownership for Refinery29, Gizmodo, and Jezebel.
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