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.

To IPO or Not to IPO: Live at TechCrunch Disrupt

IPOs traditionally are the grease that keeps Silicon Valley’s gears turning. There’s no lack of startups today, but the big question is whether initial public stock offerings will ever become a viable way for investors, founders, and employees to get a return on their money and work. When even the likes of Facebook and Zynga haven’t gone public yet, the prospects for IPOs look almost as bleak as ever. This morning at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference, Benchmark Capital partner Bill Gurley and Michael Grimes, managing director of global technology for Morgan Stanley, will be discussing what we can expect in coming years with TechCrunch editor Erick Schonfeld.

Grimes says there are new ways for companies to get larger sums of money and to help the founders get some liquidity, such as second markets for private stock. There’s a belief that the IPO market is closed. It’s not, but it’s more discriminating. There’s a bit of a supply issue, but there’s also a bit of a demand issue.

Gurley says there won’t be one IPO that will change the IPO market after it. There are 14 companies that IPO’d in the last few (one?) year, but no one writes about it because not as many are happening in Silicon Valley.

So why aren’t Silicon Valley companies going public as much? Grimes says investors think there’s too much of a leap of faith to believing the apparently ready companies are profitable enough. Gurley says companies must be profitable or convince investment groups they will be. That’s tougher now.

Why aren’t the obvious companies such as Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. going public now? Gurley can do whatever they want. LinkedIn has hired a public-company finance guy, they’re getting ready most likely.

Should Facebook go public? Gurley: They get to do whatever they want, they’re extremely successful. The argument that Facebook doesn’t want the scrutiny of being a public company doesn’t hold up. You don’t hear Salesforce’s Marc Benioff or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos saying that.

But they say they’re still experimenting and don’t want to be limited by the need to show quarterly results. Gurley: And Bezos isn’t? But a company as successful as Facebook can raise whatever they want from private sources.

Of the 40 (or is it 14?) or so companies that have gone public in the past year at $1 billion-plus valuations, why are they not very well-known? Gurley: 75% of the deal value is not from Silicon Valley. So people here have blinders on.

So why should Facebook go public at all? Gurley: To get liquidity for shareholders and employees. To do acquisitions. Grimes: The employee liquidity can keep the team motivated to work late nights.

What are the prospects for tech IPOs this year and next? Grimes: Could be 40 or 50 next year, compared with 30 this year. Gurley: I would predict you’ll see Skype and LinkedIn go public.

LIVE from TechCrunch Disrupt: Fireside Chat with Reid Hoffman and David Sze

Now we’re on to the fireside chat with Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn prolific angel investor, and VC David Sze. They’re both partners at Greylock Partners. TechCrunch editors Mike Arrington and Erick Schonfeld are moderating.

Hoffman: Today, we’re announcing Greylock Discovery Fund, a $20 million seed fund to operate very quickly to invest in startups with only a single partner OK.

Facebook, Zynga, Twitter, Pandora, LinkedIn–these companies are some of the most successful startups in the Valley, and most had many naysayers.

Q: What disruptive spaces are underinvested in? Hoffman: Mobile e-commerce. Consumerification of the enterprise.

Q: Are Silicon Valley startups really tackling hard problems? Hoffman: Yes. But is it important to be doing stuff in the hard sciences? It would be great.

Q: What happened to Cuil (which appears to have hit the skids)? Sze: Not close enough to say. Cuil is not done, it’s in the process of a lot of things.

Q: Is it a good thing that things sometimes go wrong? Sze: Yes, it shows you’re taking risks.

Q: Digg seems to be at an inflection point–what’s next? Sze: The last launch didn’t go well, but they’ve made some changes. All the successful companies hit these points. The key is the ability to power through them.

Q: What were LinkedIn’s inflection points? Hoffman: Every year, you actually hit something, no matter how well you’re doing.

Q: Can LinkedIn really overcome Facebook’s more universal appeal? Hoffman: All our numbers are better every month and every quarter. It’s a different consumer value proposition. Sze: Stuff happens in email (but that doesn’t mean LinkedIn isn’t of value in a professional setting). We want some separate between different things. (I agree–very different kinds of services. Some overlap, but I’m doubtful I’ll go full bore on Facebook for all professional things. But the question is how big LinkedIn can be. Less sure of that.)

Eric Schmidt: Google’s Next Big Business Is Display Ads

Annual shareholder meetings can be anticlimactic snoozers, but often enough, Google’s are not. There was the time in 2008 when cofounder Sergey Brin abstained from a motion for Google to end its activities in China, on which the rest of the board voted no–providing a clue to Google’s recent decision to stop censoring search results in that country. And with many issues, from antitrust to Android’s challenge to onetime Google partner Apple, continuing to percolate, it’s worth hearing the latest official line from the company’s executives.

Indeed, judging from questions already posted on Google Moderator for the meeting, the interchanges could be lively. One question: “Google top management seems to be too egotistical and aloof about the stock price Shareholders are mad,the stock is down 21%YTD,You play catch up with apple with nexus one and now verizon tablet What is actually going on?” Hostile tone aside, interesting questions.

There are also several shareholder proposals, on China, behavioral advertising and privacy, and sustainability, all of which Google is officially opposing.

So I’ll liveblog the highlights of  the meeting here starting at 2 p.m. Pacific–and in the unlikely event there are any big surprises, I’ll also tweet them here. I’m told there will be a Webcast here, though it wasn’t listed on that page earlier today.

And we’re nearly underway, as Joe Cocker’s Feelin’ Alright and smells from the adjoining cafeteria waft across the room.

CEO Eric Schmidt comes onstage with what will be the usual board introductions, including John Doerr and cofounder Larry Page. And then the shareholder proposal presentations. First the proposal on asking Google to do a sustainability report. Then the proposal asking Google to strengthen its privacy policy, especially with regard to behavioral advertising. Finally the one calling for more protections for human rights in China–by a guy who I think has asked pointed questions at at least one previous annual meeting (I recognize his T-shirt). And, big surprise, they’re voted down.

Now Schmidt comes back on to talk about Google’s business. “We had a very good year.” And did better coming out of  the crisis than many other companies. Core business grew well, internationally and in the U.S. “So all is well after a year of great tumult.”

So what’s next: Schmidt shows a slide entitled “The rich Internet,” and explains the explosion of data, now about 800 exabytes (which is a billion gigabytes), from 5 exabytes from the dawn of civilization to 2003. “No wonder we all have headaches.” Except Google, of course, because search becomes all the more important with that infoglut.

“Search is no longer just a static Web page.” YouTube and search “audiences” are already larger than most television companies. Taking off in mobile too–number of mobile searches up five times from two years ago. “Search is not just a query”–Google Goggles lets you use a photo as a query. Also 550 quality improvements in the last three months.

Schmidt talks about what he calls “the engaging Internet,” like YouTube. Now all of a sudden, the ads need to be engaging too. In five years or so, “the ad we  grew up with will go away.” Click to call, direct links to store locations or the particular product being searched, etc.

“A huge success for us now is display.” DoubleClick was “money extremely well-spent.” Also announced an ad exchange. Some 60% of display advertisers are new to display. “This is probably our next huge business.”

Enterprise business is growing fast too–a few thousand businesses a day, he says, starting to use Google Apps.

Android is going to be either the No. 1 or the No 2 player in the mobile market–not sure yet. We’re trying to build an entire system of openness–the opposite of the other guys. (Yes, he used a plural, even though we all know he’s talking about Apple.)

The Chrome browser, he says, is also a huge success, because of speed, simplicity, and security. Schmidt says Chrome OS should become a third platform for computers (I guess Linux doesn’t count?).

OK, time for questions. Onstage are Schmidt, Page, search experience chief Marissa Mayer, products head Susan Wojcicki, CFO Patrick Pichette, and Kent Walker.

A guy from Consumers Union (I think) asks a couple of questions that seem rather inside-baseball. One is on use of SSL more broadly–Mayer says stay tuned. Another, more interesting: Is there a $700 million kill fee on the AdMob deal. Schmidt doesn’t say, but says he expects the deal to get approved because mobile is a “highly competitive market.”

Another guy asks a convoluted question about the mobile market, ending with: Why isn’t Google doing mobile devices and products more directly? Page says Google is making “tremendous progress” in those areas but thinks the best strategy is to provide a mobile platform.

Q: Is it over in China or what? Schmidt says Google wants to continue business operations in China, but the situation isn’t settled yet.

Q: Will Google run out of computer space for all that data? Mayer: It’s a big challenge to keep up with data, but that’s what makes it exciting. Wojcicki: Algorithms and better technology will improve Google’s ability to deal with growing data.

Q: What is the next big thing? Page: One of the next big things is translation. Other two-thirds of world population not yet online need that. I think that’s really going to significantly change the world.

Three people now have complained about the lack of responsiveness of investor relations. Pichette tries not to look too uncomfortable.

Q: What’s happening with that competition for Google to build a citywide fiber-optic network? Schmidt: Winnowing the list down but no decision yet. Page: We had an Olympics for trench diggers. (Yes, they did.)

And that’s it.

What I’d Like to Happen in 2010 (But Probably Won’t)

I just foolishly offered some predictions on what will happen in tech and and on the Internet this year (and what won’t happen). Now, I’d like to offer a few things that I wish would happen:
* Cell phones provide decent call quality. I really don’t get folks who don’t have a landline, because cell call quality often sucks, and I simply refuse to inflict this on people I’m talking to if I don’t have to. I’m not the first to point out that cell phones have improved in every way except as phones, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the last, especially as data-intensive apps hog more and more bandwidth.
* A cheap, fast, and simple way to get Internet video onto my TV. Yeah, I know there are many ways to do this, but somewhere along the line, they all seem to require some kluge to work. Sorry, life’s too short. Really, can it be so hard to come up with something that just works, like Tivo? (Come to think of it, maybe Tivo is it–just not the model I own today.)
* Apple gets the iPhone onto Verizon’s network. I know, unlikely at best. But I’d buy an iPhone right now if I didn’t have to deal with AT&T’s spotty network, at least in the Bay Area. Otherwise, I’ll stick with the Touch and cadge WiFi where I can get it.
* Someone figures out how to help individuals sift through the data deluge flooding us from Twitter, Facebook, news sites, YouTube videos, and who knows what-all. I sure wish, and whoever does this in a reasonably comprehensive way will have a heckuva business. But I’m not holding my breath.
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