Mesh magic: Venture capital and Web 2.0

Mathew Ingram talks with venture capitalist and blogger Dr. Paul Kedrosky.

Cute snippet from the intro:

has an approach to blogging that I consider almost pathological. He
said once that he wasn’t going to blog because he was so busy, and
then within the next hour he posted 14 items.

Is this another bubble? There’s a lot of talk about Web 2.0, there are
a lot of ideas going around, there are ideas that might not be good
business, etc.

This morning I got a press release – and this is one of the perils of
perpetual blogging, you get fifty press releases a minute – what was
kind of interesting is that these guys sent me a release because
they’d just got venture fund (overlay for Internet Explorer). This
brings us full-circle to 1995, when we funded two browsers.
Nexton(?)’s a great platform, but it’s a front end. uestion about the
bubble: it feels like one. It feels like we’re reenacting things. But
then, so what? I think there is, I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm,
but I also feel that it takes a lot of dead bodies to fill the swamp.
We have to do this stuff. We’re kidding ourselves if we think we get
aces the first time. Make the same mistakes faster. ;) Part of my
answer is yes, but so what? There’s way too much enthusiasm. I see the
same plan four or five times a day, which is crazy. There ware all
these crosspollination things. There’s the Flickr of video – but it’s
getting worse, really, now there’s the YouTube of something else.

There are some great studies out there that go all the way back to the
Dutch tulip bubble. It was a fairly rational response among
policymakers who were responding to the tulip market. Options-based
market. The outcome was nasty, but the process by which it got there
wasn’t nearly as euphoric.

One of the things that might be fueling the tiny bubbles is that there
seems to be a lot of money and people wandering out with bags of money
and they have to make investments because otherwise their money isn’t
accomplishing anything. “Here’s some money, I don’t care what your idea is or what.”

Assets under management. There’s as much money out there as there was
at the bubble time, but it’s just much more concentrated among the top
VC firms. It’s concentrated in what people deem to be the best firms.
Problem is that in the VC world, there’s an idea that the best is
always the best. VC rigged – they fish a very well-stocked pond. It’s
a lot easier to look smart when you’re working in an area where even
bad decisions look good. The problem with everyone else in the VC
market is that they’re fighting for the scraps. I was talking to a
manager of a SV fund last week. He had made a few calls among their
limited partners on a Tuesday morning. Trying to put together 280
million. By the next morning, including faxes, three billion dollars
committed. Concentration of capital, etc. Flooding into what’s
euphemistically called as alternative assets – private equity. Cash is
falling into their hands. Lot of people with a lot of captial trying
to find homes for it, and Web 2.0 and other companies…

If you can finance Web 2.0 companies on your credit card and you can
use online services for all of your work, do you need giant sums of
money that these VCs are handing out? In some cases, companies have
decided not to go for VCs. Is that a problem?

If you don’t need VC, don’t go for it. Do something else much more
notorious. That will give you more notoriety than taking money. If you
can build a company that doesn’t require capital and you keep all the
stock, then go ahead and grow it. The trouble is that there are
legitimately many businesses where that is not the case, and there are
businesses that people think can grow without VC but they actually
can’t, and by the time they need it, they’re in horrible horrible
problems. A lot of the consumer-centric Web 2.0 companies, you can do
them very cheaply.

I talked about getting your head up in the tagcloud. The idea of this
democratization is that all these services that used to cost money are
asymptotically approaching zero. As soon as there’s an interesting opportunity, there are 30 people in it. There’s no barrier to entry any more. Pecked to death by ducks out there. It’s great that the cost to enter has gone so low that you can do it without venture money, so every monkey with a credit card is in the market.

Q: Given that it’s so easy to start a company these days, it’s amazing how these companies manage to raise all this capital without having a real business plan.

Most people believe they can flip it. YouTube is interesting. IP issues are there, of course. It looks to me like a very early mockup of what a television might be. There’s more there to see than you see up front, and you need to figure out how people can pay for it, but yeah.

Can you do what they’re doing, or say, like rocketboom, and then figure out the business model later?

I hate to use the G word, but there: Google. This was a search company with a great technology. The VCs had no idea what the business model was. They “borrowed” their business model. They had no idea when they started that they would turn into a rapidly growing company. Precedent well set. If you do something on a large enough scale, you might stumble your way into a business model. You had better have scale and a business that can run economically.

The problems Google has now is that (you’ve noticed the stock price is down, right?) they’re starting to look like Amazon. Rate of capital expenditure related to growth. Maybe this problem of growing companies isn’t as easy as they thought.

Q: Progression. Thinking 12 months again, what the shifts are going to be, Web 2.0 for the enterprise, do you see that kind of history repeating itself?

Absolutely. I use my inbox as a temperature indicator of what’s going on out there, the stuff that shows up in unsolicited tags. Split between consumer-centric 99%-1% business, and now 60%-40%. The pendulum’s already swinging, and the three most interesting companies I’ve seen in the last six months are all on the business side. They’ve got subscriber models, they’re selling to people in business, and they incorporate intelligence.

… Most people use Microsoft Excel as a really crappy database. Let’s just make shareable databases easy to use and stop them from bastardizing their Microsoft Excel.

Q: Examples of companies in this space that are profitable, that are making money? Good example: Google, how they monetized search.

I’ll give you another Canadian example of a community-centric company that’s insanely profitable. Plentyoffish.com. It’s a really funky idea. We’ll build a very utilitarian website so that people can discover each other and undercut the dating market. It’s a very grassroots approach to breaking into a community market that’s gotten stuck on the subscription model, introducing Adsense.

The idea of building communities. There are companies that are discovering that to keep costs down, if you can find communities of similar people, you can actually sell better keywords.

Q about VC in Canada. I’ve been talking to a bunch of entrepreneurs in Toronto. Hard to get attention from financing. What’s your opinion on that?

Everyone thinks they have a seed capital gap. In the Valley, there’s a
perception that there’s a lack of seed capital. I think that in
Canada, there just aren’t enough individuals who will go out and fill
that gap. Economics of seed investing isn’t very good. You can’t get a
return. Very hard under the current structure… Some people will
selectively do seed investing, but they’re not structurally supported
in doing this. Seed captial as marketing sometimes works, too.

Q: While you can build a Web 2.0 company on credit cards, it’s harder
to build 5-year businesses. Is that where VCs can bring in a lot of value?

Most VCs in Canada and the US would like to find exactly those kinds
of company and do the traditional kind of investment, putting money in
over time. Recent experience is that businesses go to mezzanine
financing. Where do I jump in? Too early – broken business model. Late
– competing against big mezzanine private equity funds.

Q: Browser was a feature, not a product. When I hear you talking about (?) getting funding, and that’s just an overlay on Internet Explorer… How many of these businesses are features, not products?

Plausible deniability. Nonsense like that is getting acquired. Some of the larger companies are passing off featres as products, and the line is getting really blurry.

Q: Often talked about: Skype. What’s your business model? Cast a big net out there and hope you get people. Small risk, calculated one. Are there enough technology people, you normally see us business types…

eBay acquisition of Skype. Game-changer. That’s huge. You can see all
the heads swinging toward VOIP. It absolutely focuses peoples.

The death of the IPO. It’s a sad event, it’s very traumatic, but it’s
caused a lot of change. What they’ve had to do is run an acquisition
game for exits. As soon as they’ve seen a big acquisition that’s on
par with what they’ve gotten from IPOs, etc…

We’re now back at the level of online advertising that we were in 2001.

Q: Disproportionately small number of business and consumer companies
in Canada.

That’s an interesting question. Putting it in VC terms… Getting that
pace of deal flow is so different from what it’s like in the US. US,
exploding with flow, numbers game. While it’s up, it’s still much lower on a per capita

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Random Japanese sentence: 猫がバスの真正面に走ってきてひかれた。 The cat ran right in front of the bus and was run over.