Venture Capitalists: We’re Doing Fine! Really!

4444 students from 25 schools in Gwalior

Image: AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

With so much turmoil in the venture capital business, from the rise of competing super-angel investors to tepid fund returns for the past 10 years to some big IPO duds this year from the likes of Facebook, the future of this economic engine of innovation is pretty murky. But to hear VC investors on the opening panel of the Silicon Valley Venture Summit held annually in the coast-side community of Half Moon Bay by business media network AlwaysOn, there’s not much to worry about.

On the panel addressing the “VC & Investor Outlook for Global Silicon Valley” were host Packy Kelly, partner and co-head of KPMG’s U.S. Venture Capital Practice; Norm Fogelsong, general partner at later-stage VC Institutional Venture Partners; Neal Dempsey, managing general partner at early-stage VC Bay Partners, which has gone through its own travails in the past couple of years; and Gaurav Tewari, director of SAP Ventures. Here’s what they had to say about the state of the VC business:

Q: Where are we in terms of the VC cycles today?

Fogelsong: The industry’s healthy. Things got quite excessive in the bubble, and now we’re back up to $15 billion to $20 billion that’s healthy for the industry.

Dempsey: Companies are going to have major exits, and I’m convinced it’s going to be fine over time.

Tewari: The pace of innovation and entrepreneurship is just accelerating. It’s a very exciting time. The numbers are mixed. The number of folks in the industry has shrunk 30% in recent years.

Q: Is there still ample capital to invest?

Fogelsong: Yes. But we’re still burning off the excess of the bubble.

Q: How have things changed in terms of the choices entrepreneurs have now–angels, seed funds, accelerators?

Dempsey: It’s only better for the industry. The angels provide this huge infrastructure of small investments that we can’t make. We can see what trends or companies are working. When we get involved, [unlike angels who make dozens of investments a year], we’re hands-on.

Fogelsong: But if you’re thinking of getting angel financing, get an experienced angel. Some of the new ones don’t realize their investments are going to need follow-on financing. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

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Can’t Get Enough of Gangnam Style? Check Out AdTech Style

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Geeks love to insert themselves into the zeitgeist as much as anyone, and tech-inflected parodies of popular songs have become a staple of Silicon Valley folks who–let’s face it–struggle to live normal lives while working around the clock.

No surprise that they’re particularly popular in the arcane world of advertising technology firms, which have the additional problem that nobody knows what the heck they do. So today, we have a parody video of–what else?–Gangnam Style.

This time, ad tech leader BlueKai did up a pretty good marketing ploy parody based on South Korean singer PSY’s runaway YouTube hit. Most of it still appears to be in Korean, so I can’t vouch for whether the PSY stand-in is mouthing the words that appear in English subtitles. But the signature opening line clearly subs in “Oppan ad tech style,” and from there you have to depend on the subtitles to get the very inside jokes.

Amid shots of people dancing in server farms and bland Silicon Valley offices, plus cameos by ad tech figures such as Luma Partners’ Terry Kawaja, the video pokes fun at the industry’s infamous acronym epidemic. “Activate… with the DMP! … Optimize, verify, and inform those buys! … HEEEEEY, Sexy data!”

Like I said, it’s inside stuff, so half of you might be amused and the other half won’t know what on Earth they’re talking about. But it’s ad tech, so what else is new? And who thinks Gangnam Style‘s popularity was based on humdrum things like words?

Actually, this isn’t even the first Gangnam Style parody from Silicon Valley. A couple of months ago, there was a startup-oriented one starring a bunch of Valley entrepreneurial luminaries. Watch that one, and you don’t need to watch any more of Bravo’s lamentable Start-Ups: Silicon Valley reality show.

Uber-Entrepreneur Jack Dorsey To Startups: Don’t Just Disrupt, Start A Revolution

Image representing Jack Dorsey as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Jack Dorsey is a latter-day legend among entrepreneurs, and no wonder. Not only did he help found Twitter, where he serves as executive chairman and head of product development, but he’s also founder and CEO of Square, which is trying to foment a revolution in payments by allowing people to use their mobile devices as wallets.

Revolution, in fact, not simply disruption of the existing way of doing things, was Dorsey’s main message in a keynote talk this morning at TechCrunch Disrupt, a startup tech conference in San Francisco. “We need to change the name of this conference,” he told thousands of attendees hanging on his every word. Here’s a sampling of what he had to say, mostly aimed at dashing precious beliefs of entrepreneurs:

I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. I never woke up one morning and thought I need to get a ticket to San Francisco. I actually wanted to be Bruce Lee.

Actually I wanted to be a sailor, to explore the world. I wanted to be a tailor, to build things myself that I could share with other. I wanted to be an artist, specificallly a surrealist.

Along the way, I realized life really happens at intersections. Literally for me. I was fascinated by cities.

I thought about founders–in particular the Founding Fathers of the United States. They realized they wouldn’t get everything right at the start. There would not be one founding moment but many. A lot of the ideas they had at the time were wrong (slavery, for example, or women’s suffrage).

So there’s a massive amount of energy spent on the founding moment. At Twitter, not so. Companies have multiple founding moments. I consider CEO Dick Costolo a founder. He’s really reconsidered everything and made the company better. Same at Square with its COO. Same at Starbucks with Howard Schultz, who was not a founder. Marissa Mayer, not a founder of Google or Yahoo, but with the drive and smarts to create another founding moment at Yahoo.

So a founder is not a job, it’s a role. An idea that can change the course of the company can come from anywhere.

Science fiction writer William Gibson said the future has already arrived, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. Our job is to distribute the future that is already here. We need to make sure it spreads all over the world, as quickly as possible, and with the right values.

We have the change the name of this conference. What we really want is not disruption, but revolution. It pushes people to do the right thing. It doesn’t always have to be loud or violent. It’s just as powerful in its stillness.

So the key is how we recognize disruption. We want to distribute the future more quickly. We don’t want to just disrupt things and move them around. We want purpose. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Why Do Programmers Hate Internet Advertising So Much?

Facebook ad question (Photo credit: renaissancechambara)

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Another week, another pontificating programmer slamming online advertising. What is it with these guys?

The latest example is a steaming heap of linkbait from software developer and entrepreneur Patrick Dobson entitled Facebook Should Fire Sheryl Sandberg. That would be the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose purported crime is that she steered Facebook toward being an ad-supported company.

In Dobson’s telling, while Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was off at an ashram in India, onetime Google ad exec Sandberg mandated that Facebook would henceforth be an advertising company. Proof of her folly? Facebook’s now worth half of what it was at its IPO three months ago as it “continues to flounder in advertising hell.”

This, despite the fact that Facebook will gross about $5 billion in ad revenues this year, despite the fact that its current market cap is still more than $40 billion less than eight years after the company’s founding in a Harvard dorm.

Thousands of Web developers would love to flounder this badly.

Dobson’s preferred alternative is that Facebook should gradually phase out advertising in favor of–and I have to get technical here, because the bigger picture he provides is fuzzy–selling access to its application programming interface. That way, developers can build businesses like Zynga did on top of the social network in the way personal computer software developers built applications atop Microsoft’s Windows. From his post:

… There is massive value in the social graph and the ability to build applications on top of it. I believe the value is greater than all of the advertising revenue generated on the web to date. … What is the best way to monetize the social graph? To sell access to the social graph! … Developers can then figure out if advertising, or micro transactions, or payed access is the best way to monetize the social graph.

I’m not really sure what “selling access to the social graph” would be, though it sounds like the result could make Facebook’s many privacy gaffes to date look tame.

But the bigger problem is the persistent implication by tech folks like Dobson that advertising is beneath them, and beneath any intelligent human being. Now, I’m no huge fan of most advertising, and all too often it is indeed lame. But there’s no doubt it can be useful at the right place and time, and even when it misses the mark, advertising is a small, remarkably frictionless price to pay for a whole lot of free Web services.

The notion that advertising is evil, to use a favorite term of Google critics, or at least useless is a longstanding meme in Silicon Valley. It goes at least as far back as Google’s founding, before it became–right–the biggest online ad company on the planet. Cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin famously wrote in their Stanford doctoral thesis describing Google that advertising could pollute search results.

Why this antipathy to advertising? A lot of tech folks seem to believe they’re immune to the influence of advertising. More than that, they assume that no one else is much influenced by it either (despite ample evidence over many decades that ads do influence people’s attitudes and behavior). Therefore, the reasoning goes, ads are nothing more than an annoyance, an inefficient allocation of capital. Dobson accuses Sandberg of a “rampant lack of business creativity” that has “no place in centers of innovation,” later saying she should start an ad agency in Miami. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Move Over, PayPal Mafia. Meet The Google Mafia

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

PayPal, the online payments company that eBay bought in 2002, is legendary in Silicon Valley for spawning an incredibly talented group of founders, investors, and executives at startups that read like a Who’s Who of Web success stories. The so-called PayPal Mafia includes Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, LinkedIn cofounder, angel investor and Greylock VC partner Reid Hoffman, hedge fund and early-stage investor Peter Thiel, Yelp cofounder and CEO Jeremy Stoppelman, YouTube cofounders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, and many more.

Now, it looks like a new corporate organization is moving in: the Google Mafia. With the surprise appointment today of longtime Google executive Marissa Mayer as CEO of Yahoo, it now appears that the Google Mafia could prove almost as powerful, though in a different way: It’s more of an executive mafia than a startup mafia. But these former Googlers are now in high-profile positions around the Valley and the larger tech industry, in very influential companies. …

Read the complete post at The New Persuaders.

Is The Tech IPO Deep Freeze Finally Thawing?

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

From my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

Facebook’s initial public offering in May was supposed to be the bellwether for an expected pile of IPOs this year, but the subsequent dive in the social network’s shares appeared to put new offerings into a deep freeze. Now, it looks like the mini-Ice Age for IPOs is starting to thaw.

Today, two companies that were widely expected to file for an IPO before Facebook’s IPO faceplant, said they plan to go public this month. Internet security firm Palo Alto Networks aims to raise up to $175 million with an offering at $34 to $37 a share.  Kayak, which had put off an IPO expected late last year, also priced its offering, hoping to raise $87.5 million at $22 to $25 a share.

Given that Facebook’s IPO was supposed to be a sure thing–and most assuredly wasn’t–there’s certainly no guarantee that these two companies will help bring back the IPO market. Investors will be cautious about every new IPO, not only because of Facebook, but because of the poor subsequent performances of tech IPOs such as Groupon and Zynga. What’s more, the economy is simply too uncertain to bet on a momentum-driven market like IPOs.

Nonetheless, successful IPOs by Palo Alto Networks and Kayak–on top of another recent IPO success by ServiceNow in June–would inject new life into the technology investment cycle. Indeed, investors such as YCombinator’s Paul Graham have warned that Facebook’s face plant has already cooled early-stage tech investment. So any revival would be positive for the innovation and growth that comes out of that cycle. …

Read the complete post on The New Persuaders.

The Top 10 Tech Trends, Straight From the Top 5 Tech VCs

Cross-posted from my Forbes blog The New Persuaders:

Everyone in Silicon Valley wants to know what’s coming next, and every year for the past 13 years, a panel of the most forward-thinking minds in technology and tech finance convenes here to provide a look at what innovations are likely to emerge in the next few years.

Last night it was time again for the Top 10 Tech Trends dinner, hosted by the Churchill Club, which puts on a bunch of Valley events with top tech folks every year. I wrote about last year’s here as well.

This year, the 14th, the panel is especially venture capital-heavy, but these folks are also, to a person, heavyweights in the Valley, so their opinions carry special weight. On the panel: Kevin Efrusy, general partner at Accel PartnersBing Gordon, investment partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & ByersReid Hoffman, partner at Greylock and executive chairman and cofounder of LinkedIn; panel regular Steve Jurvetson, managing director of Draper Fisher Jurvetson; and Peter Thiel, president of Clarium Capital. Moderating the festivities in place of longtime emcee  Tony Perkins, Churchill Club cofounder with Forbes Publisher Rich Karlgaard, are Forbes’ Eric Savitz, San Francisco bureau chief for the magazine, and Managing Editor Bruce Upbin.

The panel portion of the dinner, which attracts several hundred people (you can watch it live here for a fee), starts at 7 p.m. Pacific at the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara. The audience gets to vote–in past years, with red and green cards as well as electronic voting devices. This year, they’ll be using a Twitter-based polling system. Panel members have similar red-green paddles they hold up. I’ll post the highlights as they happen.

And we’re underway. Eric and Bruce will describe each trend and then the owner of that trend, one of the panel members, will explain it.

1) Radical Globalization of Social Commerce: Efrusy explains that companies today will be instantly global, or they will fall behind those that aren’t. For the previous Web generation, international was a distinct minority. Groupon, for example, was half international when it went public last year. If you want to be the leading global player, just leading the U.S. might not be enough. You can’t wait to win the U.S. and then open an office.

The other panel members wave half-red, half-green panels. Gordon, who waved a red, says that’s going to take awhile. Hoffman, also red, said the U.S. is still the most important. Thiel’s in-between, I think, but because he thinks it’s not very interesting. Jurvetson says it’s true, but 12 years old. It’s what every consumer Internet startup has been doing for 12 years. Thiel on second thought thinks it’s a worthwhile rule to go international early to avoid local copycats.

The audience shows mostly greens, matched by about 70% supporting the trend on TwitPolls.

Continue reading

Beyond the Wow Factor: Why LinkedIn’s IPO Matters

It would be easy to take today’s blockbuster initial public offering by business networking service LinkedIn as a sign that the IPO, the fuel for the tech industry’s wealth-creation engine, is back. But one IPO on the first day won’t tell us that. It’s just as easy to dismiss the rocket-ride to well over double its already-raised offering price as a sign of another bubble. Again, one great IPO’s first day doesn’t mean everybody will party like it’s 1999 (though if it’s “brain-dead” to suspect there’s more than a little froth in Internet investing, take me off life support now).

Still, there are many other lessons we should take away from LinkedIn’s IPO. Here are a few:

* Social networking has arrived as more than a cute phenomenon. LinkedIn may not be Facebook or even Twitter, but it’s serious networking, using people’s social connections to create real value. A lot of people already know this, but for the rest, it’s well past time to stop listening to the Luddites who think Facebook and Twitter are nothing but places to tell people what you ate for lunch.

* At the same time, it’s also apparent that social networking won’t be a winner-take-all business. Yes, a lot of businesses and even professionals use Facebook for business purposes, and will continue to do so. But many more people recognize the value in having separate circles of friends, colleagues, business contacts, and the like. Now, I’d bet that Facebook could be the biggest winner–winner-take-most, if you will. But Mark Zuckerberg clearly won’t own everything social.

* This is the first real sign of whether individual-investor interest in IPOs has returned. It was already apparent that the (literally) marquee names like Facebook, or even Zynga or Groupon, would rock the world when they go public. They’ve got fame, huge and fast-growing revenues, and soaring private valuations already, so using them as a proxy for whether smaller fry would go public was always erroneous. LinkedIn, by contrast, is a much smaller business that’s closer to those of dozens of private Internet companies that to date have been unable to provide their venture investors and entrepreneurial teams exits besides getting acquired. You can be sure that those private Internet companies are using LinkedIn to research potential chief financial officers and arranging meetings with Wall Street investment bankers, if they weren’t already.

* Those shady private-market valuations, which have given Facebook, for one, $65 billion-and-up valuations, suddenly don’t look so crazy after all following the first IPO of an actively traded private company on private exchanges such as Second Market and SharesPost. LinkedIn’s $2.4 billion valuation on those marketplaces, in fact, indicates to some that the supposedly savvy investors trading shares privately vastly underestimated the value of these companies. No doubt LinkedIn’s market cap will be volatile, so it’s unwise to think that Facebook suddenly will be worth multiples of its already breathtaking valuation. But it’s clear that the limited number of shares being traded on these exchanges, as well as the limited amount of information these investors had, didn’t necessarily cause them to overpay. At the same time, it’s unlikely the SEC will back off from scrutinizing whether to regulate them–in fact, it may move even more quickly if this IPO sparks renewed interest in the exchanges.

* LinkedIn’s success proves that Web companies aren’t entirely dependent on advertising for revenues, providing hope that other business models such as subscriptions and paid services are credible alternatives. LinkedIn makes most of its revenues not from advertising but from paid services for recruiters and premium subscriptions.

* Nice guys don’t always finish last. Talk to almost any entrepreneur about LinkedIn cofounder and executive chairman Reid Hoffman, and you’ll get nothing but admiration, and not just because he’s an angel investor in many dozens of their startups as well as a partner in the venture capital firm Greylock Partners. Hoffman seems generous with his time–not least, full disclosure, with me as a reporter since LinkedIn’s earliest days. I remember asking him once, years ago, about the libertarian, government-bashing leanings of some of his more famous colleagues from PayPal, and he sighed and recalled how, as the liberal in the bunch, he kept pushing them to give back to people less fortunate than they. Regardless of your politics, though, isn’t it nice to see that you can become a billionaire without being a jerk?

* For individual investors, the rule for Internet company stocks still should be caveat emptor. That $8 billion $9 billion valuation likely won’t stay that high in coming weeks or months, not consistently anyway, as the pent-up enthusiasm for Internet IPOs gets spent (at least until Groupon or Zynga or Facebook cranks it up again). For all the success of LinkedIn as a company and as a bellwether for Internet stock issues, it’s still a speculative play, and its share movement may well drive home yet another lesson: Individual investors should never put money they can’t afford to lose into anything their dentist is investing in, their cabbie mentions, or the press is hyperventilating about.

What’s Coming on the Internet in 2011 (Or Not)

I know I shouldn’t do it–predictions too often are either obvious or wrong–but I can’t help it. If I have to think about what’s coming in 2011, and I do, I might as well inflict those thoughts on the rest of the world. Isn’t that what blogging is all about? Anyway, here’s what I expect to see this year:

* There will be at least one monster initial public offering in tech. Take your pick (in more or less descending order of likelihood): SkypeGroupon, ZyngaDemand MediaLinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook (only if it has to). But despite many stories that will call this event a bellwether,  the IPO won’t bring back anything like the bubble days of the late 1990s (and thank goodness for that) because there are still only a few marquee names that can net multibillion-dollar valuations. UPDATE: Well, so much for that descending order. LinkedIn apparently will be the first to file–though whether it will be a “monster” IPO is another question. UPDATE 2: Well, here’s that monster IPO–since it’s hard to believe Facebook won’t go public if it has to disclose financials anyway. But it likely won’t happen until early 2012. Update 3: Now Groupon appears to be leading the IPO derby. Update 4, 1/20/11: Now it looks like Demand Media will be the first out. Again, not sure that’s the monster one, but if it’s successful, more will come.

* App fever will cool. Good apps that encapsulate a useful task or bit of entertainment–Angry Birds, AroundMe, Google Voice–will continue to do well. But those apps that do little more than apply a pretty layer atop Web content won’t get much traction–and moneymaking opportunities are uncertain in any case. The bigger issue: Once HTML5 becomes the widespread standard for creating Web services, enabling much more interactive Web services right from the browser, I wonder whether the need for separate apps will gradually fade. Continue reading

Mike Moritz and Steve Streit at TechCrunch Disrupt

Michael Moritz, perhaps the key partner at Sequoia Capital, is “the most powerful venture capitalist in Silicon Valley,” says TechCrunch editor Mike Arrington. Moritz is onstage with Steve Streit, founder and CEO of financial services company Green Dot, a Sequoia-backed company that went public in July at a $2 billion valuation. They’ll be talking about “The Road Less Traveled.”

Streit’s talking about how Green Dot, which issues reloadable prepaid debit cards, got started. What’s more interesting than the particulars is how this company went public completely under the Silicon Valley radar. Probably has a lot to do with being in financial services and aiming to be a bank holding company, which requires adherence to a lot of regulations–and not shooting your mouth off like so many startups do in ways that we love so much. Plus, it takes a long time to make it work in that business–seven years in Green Dot’s case.

Arrington tries to get Streit to describe how Moritz works, but that’s not really working beyond platitudes. Arrington asks Moritz if he’s better at discovering new talent  or making whatever opportunity is there a success? Moritz implies the former, despite Sequoia’s (not always deserved) reputation for replacing founders at the drop of a hat. In fact, Moritz says they look for entrepreneurs who look like they will be able to take the company all the way.

Now Streit opens up a little bit and says: Mike feels investments like Santana feels the guitar. He feels the investment in many ways more than the entrepreneur. He has said, “Steve, you don’t know what you’ve got here, back up a little bit” to realize it.

OK, well that’s it, and wish we’d heard more.

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