In the middle of 2014, one of my friends on Twitter (@Stammy) kept retweeting an account into my feed, usually with a screenshot. Turns out, it was his friend and roommate, and that friend and roommate had created software which just looked different than other products.
I conducted a bit of Internet sleuthing and discovered my friend’s roommate used to work for a company I was dying to invest in earlier but couldn’t convince them. That company creates great web and mobile products, too, so my interest piqued. I asked my friend for an intro, and after a few months, it came through. I rushed to meet the entrepreneur a few days later.
Turns out, my timing was good.
Anand had built the v1 of Gyroscope, currently web-based software which served as a hub for all of a person’s connected device and monitoring/tracking data. By connecting various accounts to your Gyroscope, the products gives you a kaleidoscopic view of where you’ve been, the pictures from those places, how many steps or calories you’ve collected and more. But more than just aggregating data, there’s something about the product, the design and animation, which makes it compelling.
I wasn’t sure where Anand was in his thinking. I wasn’t sure if he wanted to join a company, or still travel. We talked broadly about his options and I didn’t share any of my own views on what he should do, except that if he thought about it and wanted to start a company, I would be his first check and help him close the round.
A few days passed and he got back in touch. He was ready to start. I didn’t expect that, but was psyched about it, no doubt. We put our minds together, came up with a plan, started engaging lawyers, and all those details — we priced the round, I wired my funds, and started making introductions for Anand. We also opened up a small AngelList Syndicate, which has been closed for a while. At the end of it all, a larger fund also came in to give Anand and Eric a good solid cushion to build out v2 of the product.
As 2015 unfolds, the landscape has changed. Apple has committed some of its attention with Apple Watch to digital tracking, fitness, and health sensors. We are accumulating more connected devices which collect more and more data about us or our surroundings. What will do with all of it? Who owns that data? These are big questions, and while I don’t know the answers, I have a good feeling Gyroscope will be in that conversation.
Meerkat has the makings of not only becoming a big, important platform, but you can already start to see how disruptive it may be given all the reactions it generates (“get off my lawn!”) and serious questions it raises about other media networks and platforms. Observing the way folks are using it and how different people are tweeting about its varied potential for over a week now, I believe it has the makings of that rare disruptive platform. Here’s how I think about it:
The best “entry point” into a live experience: So far, we think of Twitter as the real-time network, so it must be that a livestream product would need Twitter as a base. I don’t think this is true. Think of other avenues where real-time information has currency — sports, finance, etc. — and also of online communities and niches that run within these verticals. For instance, breaking news about a football team midweek could affect Vegas odds, fantasy rosters, and more. The best analysts in right now tweet or work for big sports networks (like ESPN); pretty soon, they can just “Meerkast” instead of traditional TV (ESPN) or online (Twitter) broadcast.
Twitter needs Periscope to grow: Twitter has a user growth issue, and offering Periscope “in-line” as a broadcast feature to major celebrities will be a killer feature for the users, but also to help Twitter grow. Media like this can help onboard new users and give them an excuse to follow a few accounts. “OMG, Steph Curry is practicing dunks right now and giving away a few signed balls on Twitter, I need to watch this right now.” Furthermore, these notifications on mobile could have way more currency and make Twitter notices look static. Contrast a notification like “Steph Curry just tweeted: xxx” vs “Steph Curry is practicing dunks….right now. Tune in and win!”
Meerkat can be extensible: While Periscope will live within Twitter, Meerkat can use all of this attention to encourage creators and audience members to create their own accounts and extend the network to other big social media sites. Imagine being able to read a LinkedIn Influencer piece while you’re browsing the site and then see your favorite business authors or self-help coaches give live training via Meerkat. Or a platform like Pinterest, imagine curators showcasing a wedding they’ve planned or a party, or showing off goods they want to sell exclusively on Meerkat.
Speaking of sales, Meerkat’s nativity could lead to money: If Meerkat can figure out the right entry points to grab your attention into their native app or their web browser while you’re logged in as a Meerkat user (regardless of entry point), they can also leverage payment gateways to help facilitate transactions with the ease of a click. Imagine that Taylor Swift is practicing a new single that’s not yet polished, and for charity, she wants to sell the song for $0.99, so as a viewer you can offer to pay and the money is collected and routed to Taylor’s account. Taylor would also know which fans hang out in the room (better analytics on mobile vs multiple tabs on browsers). Hopefully, the infrastructure will support such a big network.
And, speaking of infrastructure, Meerkat’s is great so far: Garry Tan has one of my favorite lines: “The best software is invisible.” So far, Meerkat just works, but to pull off high-fidelity, real-time, synchronous broadcast from one device to many requires robust infrastructure that cannot just be engineered in a month. This gives them the type of defensibility an external investor would look for and also raises the bar for Twitter/Periscope upon release. As more mobile devices come on board, it will not only strain those users devices (video bandwidth is costly in many ways), but may also require a different network architecture that a blockchain-enabled mesh could provide. The timing may be impeccable here.
Mobile software is eating mobile hardware: Just a few months ago, GoPro was the talk of the town; now, our phones are GoPros, thanks to Meerkat’s timing. Will people Meerkast from comedy clubs, sports arenas, private boardrooms, and so on and so on? As there are endless possibilities for celebs and big brands to leverage this new channel, but what about individuals who can disrupt what is bread and butter to networks like CNN, ESPN, The Cooking Channel, and so on…instead of paying a toll to cable operators and studios, content creators now could have yet another layer stripped away and capture more value. There are too many examples to list here, so just pick your favorite show, guesstimate the economics, and now add more to the protagonists and you’ll start to see how Meerkat can leverage the web to trigger this transfer.
The end-user watch points are also aplenty: Where will I watch my favorite Meerkasts — on my mobile devices? In the browser? As a channel or network of channels inside Netflix or Roku or Apple TV? If Twitter only offers Periscope, is there room for Meerkasts to extend and not need to rely on Twitter? You bet there is! And, what if I could watch a Meerkast via virtual reality? A sideline reporter or a network of cameras on a football field could capture the live feed, and I could view in total immersion — in real time.
And, therein lies the challenge and opportunity. The challenge is that while we’re enjoying the flurry of experimentation today, the cost of watching video (especially poorly produced grainy and unstable video) is very high to the audience. It can feel noisy or disorienting. Very few things will have real-time currency, but as more people experiment, no doubt interesting things will emerge. Also, Meerkat couldn’t’ve exploded without ambushing Twitter, and now that Twitter also has its own competitive product, has a huge incentive to bring the feature in-line and give preference to Periscope. While we have Net Neutrality now for our big pipes, the social and interest pipes on top of the web do not have their own flavor of net neutrality. Now, Meerkat will have to go through the work of building out user accounts, finding other networks to integrate with, and helping those with large and niche audiences produce this new style of media. That’s the opportunity ahead, and I’m sure the team will have enough talent and dollars chasing it to see if they can make it into a reality.
A final, personal aside about Meerkasts and blogging — nothing I do in life ever has true real-time currency, so in a Meerkat world, I’m likely to be a consumer, not a creator. In the world of text, I can create, but blogging for me is a way to structure thoughts over time — I’ve been tweeting and thinking about Meerkast for a week, and finally had a chance to write this as my daughter is napping. By contrast, I technically could’ve opened up my Meerkat and broadcast this to you all, but it wouldn’t have been as structured, and it would’ve been significantly more boring!
I’ve been talking a bit more recently in private conversations and a few tweets about Twitter lists, and I was surprised that people would ask me “How do you use them?:” or more interestingly, “What are they?: Ugh, Twitter UI regression. There’s a long history around “Lists” that isn’t worth going into, but essentially, Lists are user-generated lists of accounts — either public or private — that provides a different feed to the user, separate from their main feed. For instance, someone can create a list that includes @justinbieber without having to explicitly “follow” @justinbieber.
It’s a bit confusing. Twitter Lists are a power user product, and I’m sure many people who use them do so in different ways, so I’ll share mine briefly:
I keep about 4 public and 4 private lists: https://twitter.com/semil/lists
One of the private lists is max of about 100 accounts of friends, colleagues, or feeds I don’t want to miss — for me, it’s the max number of accounts I can really pay attention to without feeling overwhelmed. Most of the time, I’m in my main feed just seeing what’s most recent in the last hour.
I will scan the other lists if I have time, but it’s really a scan. Could be a few seconds. I don’t visit the web directly much more — I see the web through Twitter. And, as that increases, creating lists (like I recently did around cyber attacks) helps me quickly get up to speed on what’s happening. Think of it like the print WSJ front page that has those two columns of headlines on the left — lists are those, but entirely customizable.
Ultimately, Twitter lists are a great feature, but they’re hard to access and use (it’s even hard to build a list, to be honest — it takes time), and just like DMs before it, or the newsfeed in general, the overall decline in information density on Twitter web is why I don’t use Twitter native products anymore. On mobile, I use TweetBot (great list views) and TweetDeck in the Chrome Browser for my laptop, which also has great list views. I’d probably be blind without lists.
As someone who uses Twitter a lot (yep, over 70,000 tweets) over the years, it’s been fun to watch Marc Andreessen take Twitter by storm in 2014. In the last year, he’s turned up the volume to build his Twitter network and promote his firm’s investments, curate ideas and articles, and amplify in the voices of others. So, it got me thinking — just how much did @pmarca use Twitter in 2014? The answer to the question is pretty cool (and very consistent with Dan Frommer‘s take from the midway point in 2014, here on Quartz). Note, these aren’t exact statistics for 2014, as he signed up for Twitter many years ago, but given the volume of content creation this year, it’s directionally safe to presume most of his tweets and interactions were generated this year.
As of Dec 25, 2014, @pmarca‘s stats for the year 2014 are (approximate & rounded up for cleanliness):
Number of Tweets: 41,600 (114/day)
Number of Followers: 235,000 (+644/day)
Number of Accounts Followed: 4,700 (+12/day)
Number of Favorites: 121,000 (332/day) % of Tweets Which Are @Replies: 73.5% [Source]
Device Share: 78.5% (Twitter web), 19.7% (Twitter for iPhone), 1.7% (Twitter for iPad). [Source]
** Note: His account was created in 2007, and had <1,000 tweets up to 2010, but turned up the volume in Dec ’13. **
Marc was quite consistent throughout the year. If I were trying to build an interest-network online from scratch today, I’d probably follow most of what he’s done plus post/blog and curate links/images/videos on Medium (which has good discovery and juice on Twitter). Heavy use of Twitter, including lots of curation with commentary, lifting the voices of others (including in the media), and timely linking. He’s favorited a tweet well over 100,000 times. All of those people who tweeted got a receipt that Marc has read their tweet. Small, but powerful, and reinforces reciprocity, which is a core tenet of building influence over time. Also critical, as Frommer highlighted, Andreessen balances his broadcast heft by quite consistently replying to people — assuming he tweets 100 times a day, over 70 of those tweets, on average, are replies to others. Despite his tweetstorm megaphone, he actually seems to listen on Twitter. Perhaps there’s a lesson in that, too.
John shared this video of Steve Wozniak last night, describing it as “wonderful” 3x. Really? Well, yes it is. Rather than retweeting it or just sharing the link, I wanted to post it here and say a few words, to save the clip. The video is short, so there’s not a big cost in watching it. Also, it’s highly produced with good music, great clips, transitions, color. It is worth the time.
Beyond this, like John tweeted, I just love this video. It is honest, pure, and true. The scenes of him reenacting how he built the first boards by hand, the old video clips of the machines he would unveil, and everything in between was a joy to watch. My favorite part is at the end – where he explains he likes being at the “bottom of the org chart” where he can just be an engineer, creating things — that was powerful.
He took a few swipes at Jobs’ desire for business, to move up the org chart, to sell machines and make money. And it reminded me of how politics comes into play as successful people accumulate more power and fame. while this happens, there are plenty of people who are either expert in their craft or only interested in the pure pursuit of it that let go of the ambition to move up the food chain, let go of the drive to make more money, etc. to instead just focus on what they love to do. Only makes you wonder, in this day and age of tech celebrity brands: What greatness rests at “bottom of the org chart”?
Finally, I had to write out this last quote from Wozniak, can’t stop thinking about it today:
When we went public, yeah, a few of us became unbelievably wealthy, we were worth so many millions of dollars, hundreds of millions…but…I designed these machines because I wanted computers for myself, I wanted to help revolutions happen, and I didn’t really want that kind of wealth…I want to stay at the bottom of the org chart, as a engineer, because that’s where I want to be.” – Steve Wozniak
Hello. This is a request for help to all the readers of Haywire. Last week, I shared the Preface and Table of Contents (draft) to my book on Uber. The embeds didn’t work well on this WordPress theme, unfortunately, so I wanted to specifically write to you all and kindly ask for your help in looking over the Table Of Contents: https://hackpad.com/The-Uber-Effect-by-semil-jperNxo8smn
I’ve put the TOC on Hackpad where anyone can add or edit, or you can reply by email to me privately, or put some thoughts down via Disqus comments. I know many of you read here without interacting, so please forgive me this once to get your feedback here. The TOC serves as my guidepost in framing the book, and is probably the most important part of the entire book-writing process. Thank you!
A startup idiom can go something like “stealth mode is overrated” or “counterproductive” or just plain “dumb.” Lately, however, there are more and more companies I’m seeing which remain stealth, don’t announce funding, or their investors, or much of anything. Here, the conventional reason given is: “Press and coverage no longer drives attention and, therefore, conversions or customers.
But, I think that’s not entirely it. I think a deeper force is at play.
Over the last few years, companies couldn’t wait to announce funding, their backers, and work the PR angle. Investors fueled this further writing on their blogs about new investments alongside press events. Nowadays, not a day goes by when someone tells me about a new stealth company that has been funded by a great investor, for around $3m or so (give or take), and there’s little or no trace of the company, the founders, or investors. All carefully cloaked.
My theory — people are afraid of competitive forces and ruthless copying. Working in the dark now may preserve all sorts of advantages, such as the ability to focus, the protection from recruiters or poaching behavior, and not giving ideas to overfunded teams of talented souls who are clever enough to pivot 180 degrees into your neck of the woods. I should underscore here this has been so common over the past year that when I see tech headlines on Twitter, it just feels like an entirely different universe. I should also underscore that these companies are often on a different level from what is publicly discussed about other companies. A growing but derivative company may get people chattering online, but some of these new companies — if public — would make for great blog posts, discussions, and debates about what our future may hold.
That gives me hope but also puts me in a bind. I have survived here by being open and public, but also working very hard to work with several competing interests while maintaining confidentiality. And, I like to distill what I see happening and then write about it here, as a way to deepen my understanding and learn from others. But as more things go stealth, I will hear about things less, and even if I do, like I did this week, the information can’t go anywhere but patiently wait to launch or seep quietly into the mainstream one day. From what I’ve seen, I hope they do.
About a year ago, a close friend of mine told me to get back in touch with @lg, and I did immediately — and that was a good choice. I had known Larry before and wanted to invest in Envoy on the spot. (You can read the Envoy story here.) As Larry and I reconnected, he graciously introduced me to this guy who was leaving one of my favorite startups to create his own product and company. So, of course, I took that recommendation seriously. And, I’m glad I did.
Larry recommended that I met Henrik, one of the earliest employees at SoundCloud. I love SoundCloud and have been friends with Alex for a while. Henrik was in town from Stockholm and I rushed to the city to meet him. We walked around the city for about 90 minutes. I was definitely going to invest and just was hung up on one detail — creating for the iPad vs iPhone. I was stuck on iPhone, he was bullish on iPad for music creation.
Auxy is iOS software that allows anyone to create their own electronic sounds, to stitch them together, to change the tone, pitch, tempo, and beat to create their own electronic music. Check out the video above and make sure to download Auxy for iPad — Henrik convinced me of why the iPad is better for this to start, just like good entrepreneurs do. Aside from that detail, I believe electronic music is the music of today’s and tomorrow’s generation, and is a lingua franca to connect people around the world in a common belief or experience. [Product Hunt discussion on Auxy.]
Henrik lives in Sweden. It’s the first international investment for Haystack. It was a quick decision in a product that’s built many miles away. But, like electronic music, our shared belief in the power of music makes that distance a minor footnote. Now, I have a friend in Stockholm, and I wonder what new things I’ll learn from him.
I have some personal news to share. I am going to write a book. Yes, a book that you can physically hold in your hands, or download to your Kindle. Though many people who know me came to know me through my writing on blogs, I don’t consider myself a writer — rather, it is just the way I interact with the world around me and just a byproduct of the work I’ve been doing, either at companies, in venture capital, and as an independent investor. Yet, about a month ago, on a Sunday morning tailgating before a football game with a bunch of colleagues, we had a few beers and got on the topic of an idea that turned into a longer conversation.
And, since then, I couldn’t shake the idea. The more I thought about it, and the more I socialized the idea with friends, they too agreed it would be a good idea and that my background, more diverse than deep in any one category, could provide an interesting lens with which to write this book and share the associated ideas widely. I am going to put my name on the line and use my little platform to market the book. My intention is to make the book an organic extension of this blog, with more organization, and to share the story in an authentic, civil manner and attract the proper audience for it.
“OK, OK,” you say, “What’s the book about already!?” My answer: “Uber.” For lack of a better title, for now, I’ll call it: “The Uber Effect.”
Over the past year, I noticed that I would write more and more on this blog about Uber, and then when I searched the history on the site, I noticed it came up much more than I had imagined. And, recently, it has come up in conversation more, and when people I’m talking with realize the company is a big deal but have a harder time imagining how big the company can get and what type of influence it will collect and exert, those conversations turn into debates that touch on many aspects of how we organize society today. The more and more I think about the company and its growth potential, the more I’ve come to realize it will not just be a financially powerful company, but Uber will hold all other sorts of power related to data, mobility, logistics, commerce, transportation and more. Like Amazon, Google, and Facebook before it, it is a once-in-a-lifetime company, it is on the verge of going public within the next two years, and I have made a personal decision to commit some of my time to organize and tell that story as the drumbeat gets louder.
“What will the book cover?” you ask. I am still sorting that out, but expect it to touch on how mobile devices help create the largest technology market our society has ever witnessed, how humans are migrating to cities worldwide, how centralized systems (like governments) are being challenged by decentralized networks, a citizenry more willing to pay by the mile rather than pay more taxes and the subsequent effects on public transit infrastructure, a bifurcating labor market between high-skilled and not in an age with automation on the horizon, the distribution of knowledge via cloud-based servers and mobile devices, just-in-time inventory management powered by mobile devices, and how autonomous vehicles may turn this all upside down again.
Truth is, I’m still sorting this out, talking to an agent and publishers, but I want to commit to it, so I’m publicly sharing it, and I will need to really sharpen the scope and focus. That’s what the holidays are for, I guess!
All that said, here’s what will not be covered in the book:
One, this book will not be a hit-job on the company, nor an excuse to be an academic cheerleader for the company. I am an Uber “bull” and would love to own stock in the venture, but I have no financial connection to the company and I do believe Uber will face some bumpy times ahead. Uber is also a company which has been described as “unscrupulous” by many, and I will look into those stories. I want to write a fair book.
Two, the book won’t be unnecessarily long — rather, I want to write it in a style that a smart person can dig into it for a few weeks, let it marinate and digest, and then talk about it with other people.
Three, the book won’t go into gossipy detail about the company’s formation or startup competition — nothing wrong with someone else taking up this angle, and I’m sure there’s an audience for it, but it doesn’t interest me personally.
Four, it won’t be an excuse to show off data porn — I don’t want to be reliant on getting proprietary data nor do I want to get into academic debates about how one labeled a graph and such. There will be people who disagree with the book, and that’s great — heck, right now, many smart people think the company is grossly overvalued.
Five, my goal is to not make it the typical business or strategy book — think of the brilliantly short “Holidays On Ice” book by David Sedaris that you can read every holiday season with a heavy dose of the type of writing that’s on this blog already, but much more organized.
And, Six, this won’t be an “official” account or the “official” book on Uber. I won’t have that kind of access nor would make that claim. It will simply be my point of view on the company, in greater detail than could afford on this blog, and something tuned for the more casual reader who is interested in issues like globalization, mobile technology, new business models, labor markets, and reimagining cities.
Anyway, that’s it. I’ll share more details as I organize them. Will probably start with a Table Of Contents. Also, there will be many people reading this and on Twitter with a much better grasp of the company than I have — I want to write this book both for the technology early-adopters who have seen the Uber tidal wave coming for a while, but also for a more general audience who may have not yet. I hope that I can set expectations here and write a book that will appeal to both. Thanks for reading, and thanks to friends already who have listened to my idea and offered feedback and guidance. (And, yeah, there are probably typos in this post, so I’ll have an editor and fact-checker clean up the book.)
Back in 2012, right before the Facebook IPO, CRV’s George Zachary sat down with me to discuss the history of bubbles in economic history, including Silicon Valley. Zachary has been through a few tech cycles and he’s studied the history of bubbles, so this is an interesting time to revisit his thoughts. Video above, transcript below. Again, bear in mind this conversation happened in June of 2012.
@semil: We’re in the TechCrunch studio today with George Zachary, partner at Charles River Ventures and an early investor in Twitter, Yammer and Millennial Media. George, welcome to the studio.
George: Thanks for having me here.
@semil: Very soon, Facebook is going to go public. There’s a lot of talk about bubble talk in Silicon Valley and the tech world. You’ve been around the block a number of times. How do you view the world right now in terms of technology and the whole scene?
George: I’ve been in tech personally since ’77. In venture capital, I’ve been an investor since 1995. The plus side is, I’ve studied the history of bubbles. There’s actually 600 years of human history with bubbles. It’s actually a human phenomenon. It’s not just a short-term thing over the last 20 years.
@semil: Tell us a little about that. I didn’t know that you studied bubbles.
George: There’s some great books to read if people are interested, such as Manias, Panics, and Crashes. It reads like a description of a bipolar person. It also talks a little bit about a bipolar society. The tensions that get created are basically socioeconomic in nature, where people feel like they’re missing out and that fuels the end of the bubble.
We’re not quite there. We’re getting there, but there are just some fantastic books about how bubbles start. There’s the South Sea bubble, where people give money to the adventurers on boats, and then you get this bubble of people over-funding the boats. There’s also the tulip bubble. There are plenty of bubbles, and it’s just driven by the fact that people are seeking treasure.
@semil: Walk us through an earlier bubble that the Valley went through and what that looked like. Start to explain where you think we are now.
George: To preface this, if you look at the last 150 years of stock market history, you see an annualized return of 6.7 per year. That’s on a real basis. Without dividends, it’s closer to five-ish.
One of the things you’ll see is that the bubbles come in waves. You see 15 years of sideways appear in the stock market with this up and down volatility, and then 15 years of up, with up and down volatility. In the year 2000, I told my partners, “We are in it for another 13 to 15 years, where the market’s going to be tough.”
We can talk about that later, but we’re nearing the end of this bearish period. We’re starting to see a bubble emerge. For me, this Facebook IPO has a lot of similarities with the Netscape IPO of 1994, and a lot of differences.
At that time, no one was saying it was a bubble. People weren’t going around saying, “Oh, my God. Netscape is going to go public. It’s a bubble.” Actually, people were looking forward to it. People didn’t know how it would price. It went out. It priced. The price jump was astronomical. That started people talking about that there might be a bubble.
The real bubble in the ’90s really didn’t start until the late ’90s. While people call it a dot-com bubble, it was actually a bubble fueled by the Fed. The Fed pumped a ton of liquidity into the system towards basically the guarding of the catastrophic meltdown of the United States due to the year 2000 problems, in terms of people’s clocks resetting.
It pumped the market full of liquidity and that came out into the market in 2000-2001. It actually caused a catalyst for the final part of the bubble up and then, it’s basically popping. It always pops when there are no more buyers. Boom and bubble is basically that last phase where it starts to become unsustainable. You see exponential and ballistic rises in stock prices. You see it across the entire landscape, from the leaders in industry to the seed-stage company.
We’re not quite there yet. To me, there’s a Netscape feeling about it because people feel like it’s a brand new era. Back then, people weren’t talking about a bubble. People now are talking about a bubble. I think the question is, “How do you define a bubble?” That something is over-valued? Value in monetary systems is only really relative. There’s no idea of an absolute wealth. Bubble value is really relative value.
I do not think we’re in a ’99 kind of bubble time period this way.
@semil: It’s a different beast.
George: It’s a different beast. The end of all bubbles is always marked by people borrowing money and taking on debt to buy equity or to buy assets. The last time we saw this was 2007-8 with the end of the real-estate bubble. We just ran out of buyers. The last ones of those buyers were people who were faking their liar loans and making unsustainable commitments. There were no more buyers after that so it just ended.
To me, there’s a little bit of talk about that going on, but I don’t see founders, I don’t see investors, I don’t see landlords or service providers basically borrowing money to buy equity.
@semil: They’re using their own.
George: They’re using their own capital, which they have, to put into equity. I don’t see the individual investor increasing their margin account at stock brokerages. In the last week, we had a reduction in terms of the investor sentiment to the lowest suggested amounts of holdings of NASDAQ tech companies.
There’s enough fear in the market that it tells me that we’re not at a bubble yet. When there’s no fear, that’s when we’re near the end of the bubble.
@semil: Here in mid-May 2012, at what phase or at what point in the curve are we in your mind?
George: If you look at the phases of tech bubbles, the first phase is when a leader in the space does something breakthrough and gets an extraordinarily high valuation. That was Facebook in one of its first rounds, when they decided to not take the buyout offer and raise money at a higher price.
It wasn’t the Greylock offer when Greylock offered $500 million valuation, because that was high but it wasn’t ridiculous. It was when Yuri Milner and DST invested and everyone said, “Whoa, it’s a bubble.” It’s when Microsoft invested in Facebook and people said, “Whoa, that’s a bubble.” How can this ever be worth $10-15 billion?
Now that characterizes the first phase,where the first leader has this very high valuation and people say, “Oh, it’s a bubble.” It’s not really an indicator that the bubble is about to break. Usually when the bubble is about to break is in the second or third phases.
The second and third phases look like the following. In the second phase you have the competitor companies. I’m an investor in one, which is Twitter, where people apply a high valuation to Twitter and they say, “Well, relative to Facebook, it should have this valuation.”
You have this set of leading companies. They have good metrics, they have good users, they have real engagement, and they carry a mark-to-Facebook, a mark-to-leader kind of valuation. That’s when you know you’re in the second phase. At the end of the second phase, you start to see that a couple companies get bought.
The one that’s very obvious to me that defines this delineation between the second and third phase is the Instagram purchase. It wasn’t an irrational purchase. It looks irrational. Why is it worth $1 billion? It’s worth one percent of Facebook, which is different from it being worth $1 billion.
You’re starting to see some mark-to-market of the companies that were not the leaders but became the leaders, and then you saw this transaction that happened. The ideal point to being an investor, is still now, and actually still is for awhile. The reason why, is that there a set of follow-along companies, the HootSuites of the world and other people that are saying, “Hey, we’re going to raise money at a $500 million price tag.”
Why? Because these other companies which aren’t Facebook or Twitter but may be right underneath them in terms of leadership, they have valuations. You see this cascading multiple that goes to the leader, to the second tier, to the third tier, then to the fourth.
@semil: So, you’re saying that there are a number of companies underneath layers above the leaders and since they’re not having real revenues, or you can’t really price, select and value the user, you’re marking it to the market leader, which in and of itself, isn’t being priced according to the public markets.
George: That’s right.
The Instagram purchase really reminds me of the same feeling I had when Microsoft acquired Hotmail, in I think January of 1998. People said, “Microsoft, the leading software company, bought this webmail thing for $400 million?” A lot of people were astounded.
They thought, “It has no revenue. It just sends messages to people. People use it to communicate with one other…” People were astounded. People said, “Oh, that’s a bubble. I’m so pissed off that Hotmail got bought for $400, my message being…” I heard the exact same things with Instagram.
Instagram is interesting because the leading web company, Facebook, is now trended by the leading mobile app player. You can debate whether it’s the leading mobile app player. I see that it’s incredibly parallel.
Back in 1998, we were still not in this full-fledged bubble. We were still in this boundary between second phase and third phase. That Hotmail transaction is what started it. When you look back at it, Microsoft doesn’t complain that it bought Hotmail for $400 million because it was a great customer acquisition tool for them.
@semil: Now, the Facebook IPO is going to happen very soon.
George: Next week. No, this week?
@semil: Yes. I am going to ask you a two-part question. What does the rest of 2012 look like to you as an investor? Then, what does 2013 look like?
George: What does 2012 look like? We’re in this eye of the hurricane period, where everyone right now is just battening down the hatches, and wondering what’s going to happen the day of the IPO and what’s going to happen after the IPO. How are people going to price this? That’s going to be the second part of the hurricane.
I don’t know how people are going to act. But looking at the public market, you can see that the small cap stocks have started to lose some relative power, relative to the whole market. That’s usually a sign that you’re in an aging bull market. But it’s not always a sign, statistically.
I think what we’re seeing is that there is still reluctance on the part of the public to believe that everything in the world is fine. We’re climbing that wall of worry. The wall of worry is not over. People still have worries. As long as there are worries, you’re not at the end of the bubble.
My belief is that the Facebook IPO will do well. I don’t know if it is going to go to a $200 billion valuation. I know lots of people I know, and myself, we all have biases wanting to believe that because then, cash will be raining from the sky.
@semil: Let’s rephrase the question a little bit differently. For other startups out there, other people with companies that have gained some traction, how should they be thinking about 2012? Some of them are going to be going for financing, some of them are going to be looking at M and A. How do you think that leaders should be thinking about that?
George: It matters what stage you’re at.
@semil: Let’s say early stage.
George: Early stage, so past seed stage.
George: But they might have a million users or 10 million users.
@semil: I’m going to assume that for the best founders and best companies, seed capital is always going to be available.
George: That’s right.
@semil: Let’s say between A and C.
George: I think what you’re going to see is that financings are still going to be strong, they’re still going to be taking place. There are lots of public market investors and limited partner investors that will invest into venture capital. That’s going to continue. You’re seeing a winnowing of the amount of firms that are profitable.
Out of 800 firms in technology venture capital, 30 are profitable over the last 10 years. But remember, in Hollywood, there are lots of movie production studios that are unprofitable for a long period of time, but they don’t go out of business because people still want the dream of funding the next big movie.
This phenomenon is going to continue for a while. People are chasing these legends and myths. Not even myths, they’re the realities of “this could be the next humongous thing.”
@semil: Maybe the players will change, but the money will always be there.
George: That’s what I think.
I think the rest of the year, if you have any traction, you should be able to be financed. But people are looking for growth on growth transaction. People are looking for the exponential curves because the exponential curve is a strong indicator that you have product market fit. If you have product market fit, you should be able to monetize it in a certain way. If you don’t have an exponential curve, either you won’t get a valuation, or it’s not going to be good.
@semil: Understood. Here’s the final question. With the last breakout social application, let’s say Pinterest or some of the communication apps or what’s going on with Vox or things like that, do you think the next one will be mobile?
George: Yes. Mobile is the platform that we will be with for quite a long time. Whether it is going to be a mobile phone or a Google Glasses kind of thing, it’s still going to be mobile because it goes with you wherever you are. You don’t have to be chained to your desk.
@semil: But I’m talking about the next exponential breakout, where you see the user growth kind of go like this.
George: Yes, it will be mobile. We’re going to have more people come online in the next 10 years than are online right now. That’s a huge opportunity.
I think we’ll see Twitter have a billion users in the next couple of years. That’s the ratchet of how many users you have and what’s successful. When I got in this business in 1995, there wasn’t Web 2.0 or even, really, Web 1.0; it was like Web 0.1. If you had 50,000 users, that was considered awesome.
Now, to be considered awesome, you have to have some amount of millions of active, engaged users. Not downloads or registrations, but people who love the product and are engaging in it. You look at the ratio of DAUs, daily active users, to monthly active users, you get a sense of that excitement.
You also look at the churn rate. We’ve done some work, and we see that there’s a correlation between churn rate and exits.
@semil: Actually, this is an interesting question. Do you think that some of the companies right now, let’s say on the communications side or on the social video side, that’s what everyone is talking about right now in terms of applications? Do you think that growth is organic or sustainable? Or, are they piggybacking off of Open Graph and Twitter?
George: I’m inclined to believe more of the latter, which is, you’re likely to have these impulse waves up and another competitor can come by with a slightly better product and you can have an impulse wave down. Founders should be looking for how to implement switching costs into the product, how to build network effects into the products that shut down the users’ desire to switch out.
@semil: All right, George. Thank you for coming in and sharing your knowledge.