What’s the Next Breakout Mobile Startup? Here’s What VCs Think

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders.

Mobile computing is arguably the most disruptive force in tech right now. Just look at what it did to Zynga’s stock today. Or what it has already done to Facebook’s and Google’s shares.

Today, a group of venture capitalists laid out what they think is coming for mobile investment this year–in other words, who’s going to disrupt whom next. On a panel at the AlwaysOn OnMobile conference in Redwood City (Calif.) were host Mihir Jobalia, managing Director at KPMG; Rob Coneybeer, cofounder and managing director at Shasta Ventures; Paul Santinelli, a partner at North Bridge Venture Partners; Sling cofounder Jason Krikorian, now general partner at DCM and the Android Investment Fund; Navin Chaddha, managing director at Mayfield Fund; and Aydin Senkut, founder and president of Felicis Ventures.

Here’s what they had to say:

Q: What are the opportunities and challenges in Apple’s iOS vs. Google’s Android?

Chaddha: With Android, even though it’s open, not having control is a big issue. If developers have an app, they go to iOS first, then they look at Android, but there are so many choices, phones. It’s just hard. In the iOS, iPad and iPhone are all the same–life is easy.

Senkut: iOS’s big advantage is monetization. If you want growth and high numbers, it’s difficult without Android.

Coneybeer: It’s a stable duopoly. You need to do both. But nobody’s talking about any other platform now. For developers, you’re looking at a five-year-plus duopoly.

Santinelli: In a few years, you’ll be able to do all development in HTML5. It will solve a lot of those fragmentation problems.

Q: Where are the most interesting growth opportunities in the next five years?

Read the full post at The New Persuaders.

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Is Zynga the Canary in the Social Games Coal Mine?

Infographic courtesy of Tableau Software (click to see interactive version)

Cross-posted from my Forbes.com blog The New Persuaders:

I stopped playing FarmVille several months ago. Why? I got bored. Apparently a lot of other people are getting bored, too–at least with playing FarmVille and other Zynga games on  their personal computers.

According to a research note from Cowen & Co. analyst Doug Creutz today, social games played on Facebook such as Zynga’s are seeing steadily dropping usage–leading to a fearsome 10% drop in its shares today, to $5 or less.

The reason, he says, is likely that more and more people are playing social games on their smartphones and tablets:

We believe that mobile devices may be siphoning off an accelerating number of gamers from Facebook. Facebook itself is increasingly being accessed by mobile devices, however it is not possible to play Facebook-native apps through Facebook on a smartphone. We believe that over the last two months, trends in the casual digital gaming space have swung decisively towards mobile and away from social, at least in Western markets.

No doubt that’s one reason, and an inevitable one as more people use their smartphones and tablets instead of PCs for many tasks (and fun and games). But I also wonder if enough people are realizing that these games are taking a little too much of their lives. …

Read the rest of the post at 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.

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What’s Coming in Internet Advertising: 12 Predictions for 2012

I did my annual predictions first on my Forbes blog, The New Persuaders, since they’re focused largely on the Internet media and advertising I cover there. On that blog, they’re done as separate posts, but I wanted to gather them up in one place here, as I’ve done in previous years. So here’s what I think will happen (or in some cases, not happen) this year in my corner of the technology and startup world:

Facebook goes public, but won’t start an IPO landslide: Facebook will make the signature stock offering of the decade, one that reportedly will value the social network at up to $100 billion. But it won’t launch a thousand IPOs as a gazillion venture capitalists and angel investors hope.

Of course, the first part of that prediction is a gimme. But I can’t go without mentioning it because the Facebook IPO will be one of the biggest stories of 2012. Assuming Goldman Sachs or Morgan Stanley don’t stumble in pricing and selling the offering, Facebook’s IPO will be every bit as important as Google’s in 2004. It will be a sign that Facebook is a real, sustainable company (if there was any doubt left by now), but also a sign that social networking is getting woven into the fabric of our entire online experience.

The second part of the prediction depends less on how the Facebook IPO goes than on how (or whether) the economy recovers. If the recover remains slow to nonexistent and the stock market reflects that, IPOs will be sparse. If we get the slow but growing economic improvement we seem to be seeing now, more companies will go public but not a gusher. But the point is that Facebook is such a singular success that it’s not going to set the tone for lesser (often far lesser) Internet companies.

Facebook’s ad business booms–but not at Google’s expense: Facebook’s social advertising looks promising, but won’t come close to challenging Google’s huge success in search ads this year–maybe ever.

Obviously, Facebook is having no problem raking in the bucks from advertisers eager to reach its 800 million-plus audience–or more specifically, the millions of people in whatever target markets they choose. EMarketer reckons the company will gross nearly $6 billion in ad revenues this year, up from $4 billion in 2011. And that’s before we know anything about Facebook’s likely plans for mobile ads or an ad network a la Google’s AdSense that would spread its ads around the Web.

From reading a lot of articlesyou’d think Facebook is stealing all that money directly from Google. That’s not mainly the case, given Google’s own considerable growth in display advertising, though Facebook’s success may well blunt that growth in the future. Instead, Facebook currently is eating Yahoo’s and AOL’s lunches, and those of many ad networks that, until Facebook ramped up its ad business, were the main alternative for advertisers looking to target sizable audiences.

What would make Facebook a huge Google-scale company is the theft of an entirely different meal: television advertising. After all, Facebook shows much more promise as a brand advertising medium than a direct-marketing medium like Google. It needs only to draw a small fraction of the $60 billion or so spent on television advertising, the biggest brand medium, to be enormously successful. But even then, it’s not mainly a Facebook vs. Google contest.

Facebook still needs to answer a big question, however. That’s whether its “social ads,” which incorporate people’s friends in ads in a 21st century version of word-of-mouth marketing, will have nearly the effectiveness in driving attention and ultimately sales as search ads, which appear in direct response to related queries, often involving products people are looking to buy. The potential is intriguing, and there are some nice examples of how well social advertising can work.

But despite Facebook’s considerable work in providing new kinds of metrics on marketing and advertising impact on its users, marketers and agencies aren’t yet universally convinced they need to spend a lot of money on Facebook ads. After all, they can get a lot of mileage out of their free Facebook Pages and Like buttons around the Web. (Not to mention, it remains to be seen whether these ultra-personal ads will cross what blogger Robert Scoble calls the Facebook freaky line.)

Bottom line: If Facebook is to be the Google of the this decade, its advertising has to at least approach the engagement of search ads, especially as Google itself moves to become more of a brand advertising platform with YouTube and continues its push into display ads. While Facebook is building what seems likely to become a great business on anew vision of advertising that could change many decades of tradition,2012 won’t be the year it closes that deal.

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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

LIVE from TechCrunch Disrupt: John Doerr, Mark Pincus, Bing Gordon

TechCrunch Disrupt, the tech blog’s annual conference in San Francisco, is underway. I’ll liveblog the highlights of this first panel of luminaries, which is looking at Building Internet Treasures. FYI, John Doerr is a partner at Kleiner Perkins, as is Bing Gordon (former longtime creative guy at Electronic Arts), and Mark Pincus is CEO of social game giant Zynga.

Actually, Doerr is soliciting audience questions for everyone, and then they presumably will address them. They’re all over the place–where do you look for new ideas, what about micropayments, the wisdom of developing on a closed platform (in other words, Facebook), is advertising the revenue model for the Internet, what’s the future of companies like Groupon, what matters most for the future of the Internet, what is the future of social games, is the intelligent Web real or a myth, is there a future for Flash vs. HTML5, Internet disruption in health care.

Pincus starts out. 33 million people as of yesterday played a Zynga game. 1200 full-time people. Won’t disclose revenues.

Pincus says the best companies are creating products and services that we now can’t imagine living without–Amazon, Google, etc. That’s what an Internet “treasure” is. He says Zynga measures its users’ “net promotion score,” which has to do with how much they spread the word of their game experiences to others, if I understand correctly.

Doerr says he’s getting a different sense of games culture today–more analytical than creative. “We’re data junkies. We measure everything,” he says, and Zynga has invested in big data warehouses–more than a petabyte of data a day. “We’re adding a thousand servers a week.” Yikes.

But, he adds, design and creativity still really matters.

Doerr: What is disruptive about social games? Gordon: Four big disruptions from the Internet: Social, analytics, APIable Internet (app economy) and new payment methods. What’s disruptive about social games is that they combine all four in one. Pincus: In summer 2007, I was here for the Facebook apps platform launch (so was I). Games and fun were not a big macro on the Internet yet. The disruptive thing for me was not apps and platforms, but that they took down the barriers to entry to playing games–you could now design games that three clicks in, you know how to play them.

Doerr: Is the social Web going to create other great possibilities beyond games? Pincus: We are going through the biggest change in Internet consumer behavior since using the browser. Somebody will become the travel icon on my phone–and be that throughout the Web as a result. Health is waiting for someone to turn it into a consumer product that’s useful.

Turns out John Doerr’s daughter Mary, in high school when meeting Pincus along with her dad and Gordon to assess whether Kleiner would invest in Zynga, sealed the deal by saying, “He’s cool.”

Pincus: Wanted to keep control of the company to avoid “death by a thousand compromises.”

Doerr: Zynga has the notion that every employee is a CEO. That can’t be right, can it? Pincus: We sure try. People have to define what they’re the CEO of, and how they’re going to kill it (that goal).

Doerr: Is it the app economy? Pincus: Every consumer behavior on the Web is going to become an app and a new kind of industry. Consumers are going to expect the way they interact with a service is an app.

Will there be a revenue stream besides advertising? Pincus: I’m a big believer in the user-pay economy. Just as offline, ads will eventually be a small part of the overall Internet economy. Advertising [online] is only a $50 billion industry–smaller than the auto industry.

Pincus: We’re still far far away from being an Internet treasure. People can still imagine life without playing our games. Gordon: I don’t know, I was harvesting wheat at 6:15 this morning. Pincus: We have to make the daily grind have more meaning. It’s a big challenge.

How Long Will Social Games Keep Us Hooked?

Not long after I started my farm (pictured above) on FarmVille, the leading social game on Facebook, I got a message from a friend. He was relaying a question from his wife, who had seen countless semiautomated posts to my Facebook Wall chronicling my progress in the game. Her query: “What’s the matter with him?”

It wasn’t the only such reaction I got from playing Farmville. I started the game as research to write a story on their rise for Graduate School of Business alumni magazine at Stanford University, where a surprisingly large number of social games founders or managers got degrees. It seems that people either love social games (one friend either is doing a very deep research project on them or needs an intervention) or hate them. But it’s hard to deny that they’re a game apart from most previous online games, because millions of regular people who don’t even know the term “gamer,” let alone touched an Xbox console or joined a World of Warcraft guild, are playing them.

I hope my story explains some of the reasons why, but what I’m uncertain about is how far social games can go. Clearly, Zynga and other social games leaders have found a way to provide entertainment people enjoy–and, let’s not mince words, appeal to people’s addictive nature by adroitly manipulating game mechanics to keep players coming back again and again. As a result, Zynga is raking in big bucks and seems headed for a blockbuster IPO. And games may well support a second big business in virtual currency for Facebook.

Given their undeniable appeal, it seems that social games are here to stay for a good long time. But I also wonder if the slowdown and churn we’ve seen in social games this year indicates a certain weariness on the part of players. I’m afraid I don’t have the addictive gene, so much of the appeal of social games is lost on me (although I would like to reach level 12 in FarmVille so I can plant chile peppers…).

But even people who respond to the rewards of these games can feel like they’re on a treadmill. As a result, social games companies are trying to add more wrinkles to their games to keep users from getting bored. But then, like so many tech companies that have fallen victim to the Innovator’s Dilemma, they may start losing the mass market, for whom the simplicity of social games is key. Only a few companies, I’ll wager, will be able to walk that thin line.

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