Monthly Archives

June 2007

Mobile internet is ten years behind the wired web

By | Google, Mobile | 10 Comments

Playdo CEO Donnie Lygonis planted the idea for this post in my mind following the conference yesterday.  He was telling me about a presentation he gave in which he was arguing that the mobile web today is like the wired was in 1997.  I think he is roughly right, which is perhaps surprising given how long we have all been investing in it.

For me the key points of similarity between the web in 1997 and the mobile web today are:

  • Narrow bandwidth
  • High latency
  • Browser wars
  • Network operators trying to own the value chain (remember the portal wars between ISPs?)
  • Geeks enthusing rest of the world not getting it – look at the scepticism today from many quarters about whether mobile advertising can work

Noting the parallels in stage of development is not to deny the important differences between mobile and the wired web.  The heterogeneity of devices and OS’s, plus the small screen and limited input capabilities make mobile more difficult, whilst the fact that it is always on, always with you (i.e. mobile), has a camera and knows your location give it extra dimensions of potential.

As we know, the tipping point on the wired web came when broadband hit critical mass in terms of penetration.  So it will probably be on mobile.  But, and this is the critical point for me as a VC, all the really valuable internet businesses today were founded long before that point.

As I’m sure I’ve said before, timing is everything for young companies and the timing is (finally) starting to feel right for the mobile internet.  Google was founded in 1998 after all.

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A little bit of O’Reilly magic

By | Consumer Internet, Social networks | No Comments

I’m at the Library House Essential Web conference today which so far has been excellent – to the extent that I looked through the agenda to find a slot I could sit out I found I didn’t want to miss any.  So I’m blogging from the auditorium as ParkAtMyHouse do their pitch (if you drive in London you should check out their site).

A little earlier on they showed a video from Tim O’Reilly who is probably best known for coining the phrase “web2.0” although I’m sure there are many other things he would prefer to be remembered for.  A key insight that he shared is that many great companies are great because of the intelligence they add to user generated content.

This was new to me but as Tim pointed out Google can be understood this way.  They took a form of UGC – the links that people make to other people’s sites – added intelligence in the form of a the page rank algorithm and built a search product from it.

My post yesterday on your network being your filter hits at the same theme – the UGC is the chatter of people’s updates to their profiles, status, favourite lists etc – the intelligence is in the filters that are used to make a recommendations product.

There are many examples of companies using this concept of driving intelligence from UGC to build products.  Here are a couple in the UK

A couple of companies that have the ‘network if your filter’ model at their heart

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Your network is your filter and Facebook invite spam

By | Facebook, Microsoft, Social networks | 4 Comments

Fred Wilson recently posted about The Facebook Problem:

Invite overload and application noise. I cannot keep track of all the
invites I am getting, both the standard invites and the application
invites. And what’s worse, I can’t keep track of all the applications
that all of my friends are using.

I get that – I am suffering a bit too. The signal to noise ratio is getting out of whack. As a result a lot of people are saying that they would rather see a return to the old, simpler, cleaner Facebook.

I’m not so sure that is the right answer.

Noise is good. It contains information. The problem is that the tools Facebook provides to manage it are a bit primitive. My vision of where this all goes is that hoary old chestnut “your network is your filter”. For that to work my network has to be generating a lot of noise. I just need tools that let me tune into the stuff that interests me and tune out the rest.

For example – I might only want favourite film updates only from my film buff friends, status updates only from close friends and colleagues I am working with a lot right now, application invites only from my geek mates etc. etc.

Facebook has taken the first steps towards this. They have implemented sliders which allow you to ratchet up or down the amount of chatter you see across different categories like events, groups, friends, wall posts etc. and they also have the facility to nominate up to 20 people you want to hear more noise from and 20 you want to hear less noise from.

Unfortunately these tools are too crude. Ideally you need to be able to say for each friend how much noise you want to hear across a range of different topics. You will also want to be able to easily change these settings. This is just a question of iterating the application though and if I am right about this and the Facebook guys are smart (which they are, very) then they will get there.

Interestingly Microsoft have shown they grasp this concept more clearly than anyone else (at least that I have seen). Shame they are struggling to build social networking services that people want to use.

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Another milestone for online advertising

By | From mobile | 4 Comments

Posted by mobile phone:
The top prize at the world`s most important advertising festival has been awarded to an online campaign. This shows the extent to which the internet has rocked the advertising world.

The winner at Cannes was also significant for being an FMCG brand campaign. The “Evolution” film for Dove, Unilever`s skincare brand whizzed around the web on blogs and video sharing sites, and I guess this award means it also has a shout for being the worlds most effective viral.

Maybe video is finally bringing brand advertising onto the web.

No links because I`m posting this from my mobile.

Facebook a platform for friends?

By | MySpace, Social networks | 6 Comments

At the risk of contributing to the general hysteria around Facebook at the moment I’ve been thinking that Facebook could become THE PLATFORM for friends across all social apps. 

My thoughts run something like this:

  • I don’t like having to invite new friends every time I join a new social media site
  • Maintaining friends lists across multiple sites is something I never get round to
  • I have a friends list on Facebook that works for me
  • The much vaunted Facebook API could provide an easy answer to this conundrum

I couldn’t find anything on this topic as I googled the web prior to writing this post, so I don’t know if this works, but if social sites made themselves available via a plugin so I could access their functionality within Facebook life would get a lot easier. 

The principal benefits would be that I could immediately see which of my friends are already on the new site (this works already with the Tripadvisor Facebook plugin) and inviting new ones would be less of an ask if they could also see which of their friends was on already.  Even more so if automatic registration using Facebook details was possible (I haven’t seen anything that does that yet).

All of this throws up obvious questions about Facebook dependency and where the value is being built, but it gets over the big problem of all the social apps operating as silos.  There are positive sides to the story as well – the user experience for customers on what I will call the Facebook partner site would be much improved, they would increase growth with Facebook’s distribution, and if they managed to do something similar with Myspace, Bebo etc then the network effects would exist in the partner rather than in Facebook.  Reserving some functionality for the core site (i.e. not putting it in the plugin) would also be a smart move – and in practice this is probably inevitable.

This is a bit of a thought experiment, for which apologies, but the Facebook API throws up some strategy questions that I thought it would be interesting to start looking into.

Your thoughts, as ever, would be appreciated.

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The difficulty of getting feedback

By | Entrepreneurs, Venture Capital | 2 Comments

As a VC getting good feedback is hard. Nobody wants to run the risk of annoying you so they only ever come through with compliments. A case in point – the talk I gave at NMK 07 last week should have been better – I knew that as soon as I got off stage, but I’ve only had people come and tell me how interesting it was.

The same is true for startups. I try and give as much feedback as I can but it is difficult. This post from Marc Andreessen explains some of the reasons why. To pick out a couple of highlights:

[when VCs say no] politely ask them for feedback (which they probably won’t give you, at
least not completely honestly — nobody likes calling someone else’s
baby ugly — believe me, I’ve done it)

If I’m giving feedback I am only doing it to try and help. There is little benefit to me. I try and weave my messages into conversation and keep things subtle but inevitably there are sometimes ‘elephants in the room‘. In these situations before I open my mouth I evaluate whether it will help. I wonder ‘will this feedback be well received?’ ‘is the recipient ready to hear the message?’, or ‘will it just make them angry?’ or, worse, ‘will it dent their confidence and send them on a downward spiral?’ Get any of these wrong and it is no fun – nobody likes calling someone else’s baby ugly.

Later on Marc gets more specific about the difficulty of getting honest feedback on your team:

[to get funding] You may have to swap out one or more founders, and/or add one or more founders.I put this one right up front because it can be a huge issue and the odds of someone being honest with you about it in the specific are not that high.

Giving feedback on a subjective, personal and emotional issue like this is always going to be difficult and especially so when you don’t know someone very well. Put into the context of a fundraising process the challenge is that if there are serious questions over the team it is unlikely that the VC and entrepreneur are going to spend enough time together to build the kind or relationship that is a necessary precursor to this sort of message.

I guess my point here is that feedback is hard to come by, so we all need to keep our antenna up listening for any kind of messages, particularly of the ‘constructive’ variety. Doing this well requires a high degree of self awareness.

Marc Andreessen’s post is well worth a full read by the way, as is the first in the series. I am looking forward to the next one.

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The end of podcasting hype and the power of language

By | Content, Music | 14 Comments

Updated: I have toned down the title following views in the comments

This is from Ivan Pope’s End of Podcasting post on Vecosys:

You know that Podcasting is over as a bankable concept when companies start rebranding themselves to escape the word.

Too true – looking for the hidden meaning in language is both fun and instructive, and Ivan is bang on here.

I’ve never been a fan of using audio to communicate data – awesome for music (obviously) but most content is simply best consumed in the written format. That was something that got a bit forgotten for a while.

The other thing is I’m a believer in streaming – as networks get more pervasive and we are connected all the time then streaming becomes a better model than download. Not good news for podcasts either.

He was talking about podcasting company PodZinger relaunching as EveryZing.

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Facebook takes internet virality to the next level

By | Social networks | 10 Comments

It happens via the newsfeeds.

This is from Marc Andreessen’s post on the Facebook API:

Facebook is providing a highly viral distribution engine
for applications that plug into its platform. As a user, you get
notified when your friends start using an application; you can then
start using that same application with one click. At which point, all
of your friends become aware that you have started using that
application, and the cycle continues. The result is that a successful
application on Facebook can grow to a million users or more within a
couple of weeks of creation.

Something most of us have seen before, but I hadn’t quite grokked the power of it.

For iLike (which isn’t even that great an application – IMHO) got to 3m users in around two weeks.

That is crazy – just think of all the hardware you need to handle that – by Andreessen’s estimate, hundreds of servers.  And you have to either have them ready before hand or run around like a mad man finding them once the popularity bites.

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More thoughts on the attributes of successful consumer internet startups

By | Consumer Internet, MySpace, Social networks, TV | 4 Comments

Earlier this year I posted on the attributes of consumer internet start-ups that are likely to hit critical mass. Good sensible stuff about identifying your early adopters, making the product work for them, having a good distribution strategy (remember distribution is to consumer internet as location is to retail) and finally understanding the “essence” of your service.

Jyri Engestrom of Jaiku gave a presentation at last week’s NMK 07 conference that with some interesting thoughts on this notion of “essence”.

In the post I referred to above I described “essence” as

how the service will operate as an emergent system – liquidity, status, buzz or UGC are common forms of “essence”

Jyri’s insight – which I now find in a blog post he wrote in 2005 is that the notion of social objects is helpful in understanding whether services have a compelling essence:

‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that
mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason
why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone.

Think photos on Flickr, bookmarks on Delicious, or music on Last.fm and you start to get the picture.

I like this notion a lot – it helps explain why some social networks just feel flat – if you read Jyri’s post above he describes how LinkedIn got a bit that way because people were building connections for the sake of it – but since then they have added a vibrancy by making jobs the objects that people link through. That hasn’t worked so well in Europe where people still regard the LinkedIn network as a bit flat, but everything I hear tells me the US is a different story.

In his presentation last week Jyri listed a couple of signs that sites are really about social objects:

  1. The objects are shareable – accessed via permalinks, widgets, or thumbnails
  2. The verbs that people apply to the objects are prominent on the site

You can see how Jyri has put this into practice at Jaiku where he is making messages more social – and the differences between Jaiku and Twitter that everyone loves are the more social aspects like comments, presence and portrait photos on the phone.

As I say, I think these thoughts are powerful – a couple of (maybe obvious) caveats are appropriate though:

  1. There are many successful consumer internet businesses that are not social (Betfair, Skype, even Google) – they are simply better versions of offline services
  2. They don’t really help explain the success of the most popular social sites – Myspace, Facebook, bebo – (some people would argue that music is the social object on Myspce, but I think that only explains part of the success they have had)

All of which is to say that it isn’t necessarily the right strategy to put social objects at the heart of a consumer internet business.

One area where the idea definitely applies is my theme of social networking to do stuff, and the notion of social objects is a useful addition to my toolkit for evaluating companies in this space. As Jyri points out it is very relevant for sites like TrustedPlaces that are about places, it will also be important for social shopping sites like Crowdstorm and Karmony and probably also for webTV aggregators like TIOTI.

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