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|
|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%|
|Combined||$801.5 billion||$139.0 billion||17.3%|
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.
Which Streaming Service Has the Most Subscriptions?
From Netflix and Disney+ to Spotify and Apple Music, we rank the streaming services with the most monthly paid subscriptions.
Which Streaming Service Has The Most Subscriptions?
Many companies have launched a streaming service over the past few years, trying to capitalize on the digital media shift and launching the so-called “streaming wars.”
After Netflix grew from a small DVD-rental company to a household name, every media company from Disney to Apple saw recurring revenues ripe for the taking. Likewise, the audio industry has long-since accepted Spotify’s rise to prominence, as streaming has become the de facto method of consumption for many.
But it was actually the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic that solidified the foothold of digital streaming, with subscription services seeing massive growth over the last year. Although it was expected that many new services would flounder along the way, media subscription services saw wide scale growth and adoption almost across the board.
We’ve taken the video, audio, and news subscription services with 5+ million subscribers to see who came out on top—and who has grown the most quickly—over the past year. Data comes from the FIPP media association as well as individual company reports.
Streaming Service Giants: Netflix and Amazon
The top of the streaming giant pantheon highlights two staples of business: the first-mover advantage and the power of conglomeration.
With 200+ million global subscribers, Netflix has capitalized on its position as the first and primary name in digital video streaming. Though its consumer base in the Americas has begun to plateau, the company’s growth in reach (190+ countries) and content (70+ original movies slated for 2021) has put it more than 50 million subscribers ahead of its closest competition.
The story is the same in the audio market, where Spotify’s 144 million subscriber base is more than double that of Apple Music, the next closest competitor with 68 million subscribers.
Meanwhile, Amazon’s position as the second most popular video streaming service with 150 million subscribers might be surprising. However, Prime Video subscriptions are included with membership to Amazon Prime, which saw massive growth in usage during the pandemic.
|Service||Type||Subscribers (Q4 2020)|
|Amazon Prime Video||Video||150.0M|
|Amazon Prime Music||Audio||55.0M|
|Tencent Music (Group)||Audio||51.7M|
|New York Times||News||6.1M|
Another standout is the number of large streaming services based in Asia. China-based Tencent Video (also known as WeTV) and Baidu’s iQIYI streaming services both crossed 100 million paid subscribers, with Alibaba’s Youku not far behind with 90 million.
Disney Leads in Streaming Growth
But perhaps most notable of all is Disney’s rapid ascension to the upper echelons of streaming service giants.
Despite Disney+ launching in late 2019 with a somewhat lackluster content library (only one original series with one episode at launch), it has quickly rocketed both in terms of content and its subscriber base. With almost 95 million subscribers, it has amassed more subscribers in just over one year than Disney expected it could reach by 2024.
|Service||Type||Percentage Growth (2019)|
|Amazon Prime Video||Video||100.0%|
|Amazon Prime Music||Audio||71.9%|
|Tencent Music (Group)||Audio||66.8%|
|New York Times||News||60.5%|
The Disney+ wave also spurred growth in partner streaming services like Hotstar and ESPN+, while other services with smaller subscriber bases saw large growth rates thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The lingering question is how the landscape will look when the pandemic starts to wind down, and when all the new players are accounted for. NBCUniversal’s Peacock, for example, has reached over 30 million subscribers as of January 2021, but the company hasn’t yet disclosed how many are paid subscribers.
Likewise, competitors are investing in content libraries to try and make up ground on Netflix and Disney. HBO Max is slated to start launching internationally in June 2021, and ViacomCBS rebranded and expanded CBS All Access into Paramount+.
And international growth is vital. Three of the top six video streaming services by subscribers are based in China, while Indian services Hotstar, ALTBalaji, and Eros Now all saw surges in subscriber bases, with more room left to grow.
How Do Esports Companies Compare with Sports Teams?
With some esports companies more valuable than traditional sports teams, we visualize esports vs sports in franchise value.
How Do Esports Companies Compare with Sports Teams?
Are esports on the same level as “real” sports? These comparisons range from tricky to subjective, but the monetary value of companies speak for themselves.
The world’s largest esports companies have definitely risen to the occasion. Valued at almost half-a-billion dollars, they’ve started to pass some sports franchises in value.
In the above graphic, we compare Forbes’ valuation of the top 10 esports companies in 2020 against median franchises in the “Big Four” major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL). Despite competitive gaming’s rapid growth, there’s still a long way left to go.
Esports Impress but NFL Teams Reign Supreme
The world’s top esports companies have grown quickly, and impressively.
As of 2018, there was only one esports company worth more than $300 million in valuation. By 2020, four of the top 10 were valued at more than $300 million.
|Esports Company||Games with Franchises||Value (2020)|
|TSM||League of Legends||$410M|
|Cloud9||League of Legends, Overwatch||$350M|
|Team Liquid||League of Legends||$310M|
|FaZe Clan||Call of Duty||$305M|
|100 Thieves||League of Legends, Call of Duty||$190M|
|Gen.G||League of Legends, Overwatch, NBA 2K||$185M|
|Enthusiast Gaming||Call of Duty, Overwatch||$180M|
|G2 Esports||League of Legends||$175M|
|NRG Esports||Call of Duty, Overwatch||$155M|
|T1||League of Legends||$150M|
When compared to traditional sports valuations, esports companies have already reached major league hockey status.
TSM, the world’s most valuable esports company in 2020, has a higher valuation than five NHL franchises. In fact, four esports companies were estimated to be more valuable than two NHL franchises, the Florida Panthers and Arizona Coyotes.
But other sports leagues are further away. While the median value of an NHL franchise in 2020 was $520 million, the MLB, NBA, and NFL all saw median values of over $1.6 billion.
|Esports vs. Sports Franchises||Lowest Valued Team||Highest Valued Team||Median|
|Esports (Top 10)||$150M||$410M||$188M|
Differences in Esports vs Sports Structures and Growth
Try as we might to make a clean apples-to-apples comparison between esports and traditional sports teams, there are significant differences in the business models to consider.
For starters, major esports companies own multiple franchises and non-franchise teams across many games. Cloud9 owns both the eponymous Cloud9 League of Legends franchise and the London Spitfire Overwatch franchise, for example, as well as non-franchise teams in Halo, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite, and other games.
The revenue streams for esports companies are also extremely varied. Companies like TSM, 100 Thieves, FaZe Clan and Enthusiast Gaming made 50% or more of their revenue from outside of esports, having instead expanded into diverse companies with an equal focus on content creation and apps.
But it’s this greater ability to diversify, and the still-increasing size of esports fandom, that continues to grow esports valuations. In fact, TSM’s estimated 2020 revenue of $45 million is less than half of the Arizona Coyotes’ estimated revenue of $95 million, despite a $100+ million valuation difference in favor of TSM.
That’s why the continued maturation of esports is only going to make traditional sports comparisons easier, and closer. Instead of having to pit companies against franchises, direct league-to-league comparisons will be possible, and the differences will likely shrink from billions to millions.
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