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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Unified Raises $14 Million to Expand Social Operating Platform

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

Writing the other day about Google’s attempt to create an operating system for display advertising, I noted that a big hole in the search giant’s offering was social advertising, or at least display advertising placed on social sites.

While Google no doubt will try to plug that hole, it turns out other companies are already on that case–in particular one that’s getting a new slug of funding announced this morningUnified, a startup that offers what it terms a social operating platform, said it has raised $10 million in a Series A round.

What’s interesting is that it’s from Advance Publications, owner of Conde Nast publications such as Wired, The New Yorker, and Vogue as well as Parade Publications, American City Business Journals, and others. That’s a sign that traditional media is finally getting interested in more than social media’s buzz and wants to find a way to cash in on it as well. Unified, which moved into a public beta of its platform in January, also raised a $4 million debt facility from Silicon Valley Bank.

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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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

What Happened in 2010–and Didn’t

Somehow I persuaded myself a year ago to offer up predictions for what would happen in 2010–and what wouldn’t happen. Now it’s time to take my medicine and see how I fared.

What I said would happen:

* Merger mania will accelerate in technology, especially acquisitions of smaller firms. OK, so it was a bit of a gimme, but I got that right. Google alone bought more than two dozen.

* Branding will start to become more apparent in Internet advertising, with Google leading the way in display. I guess it became somewhat more prominent a push, but I’d say I was a year too early on this.

* Google’s software efforts will finally establish it as more than a search company, making it apparent what this pony’s second trick is. Android certainly established itself, the Chrome browser made significant gains, and Google Apps got some big new customers. Chrome OS was late, though delivered through an alpha laptop, and remains unproven, and so does Google TV. Overall, it’s an impressive showing, if not enough to identify software as its next trick.

* Yahoo will surprise on the upside, thanks in part to a pickup in brand spending. Wrong! Well, the latter happened, but not enough to buoy a sinking Yahoo. It laid off 4% of its staff and jettisoned once-promising operations. Well, there’s always 2011–and maybe that’s all there will be if CEO Carol Bartz can’t demonstrate that she can finally turn things around.

* Mobile applications will start to take off for the masses. Two words: Angry Birds.

* Twitter’s main business model will become more apparent, but won’t knock everyone’s socks off. That’s just about right.

* Facebook will keep growing, providing perhaps the first test of whether social media is a blockbuster business after all. No doubt about that, even if it’s not yet certain how profitable the company will be.

What I said wouldn’t happen:

* Tablets won’t be the next big thing in client computing. As popular as Apple’s iPad was, tablets didn’t take the world by storm in 2010. But I don’t doubt they’ll be much bigger in 2011.

* There won’t be as many tech IPOs as venture capitalists and startups are hoping. And no, there weren’t, even if 45 did go public, up from 16 in 2009. And none of them were the big names such as Twitter or Facebook that some had hoped for.

* Real-time won’t be a business. When’s the last time you heard that buzzword? Maybe when real-time search engine OneRiot did a layoff?

* Online advertisers won’t escape a privacy backlash. And they sure didn’t. More trouble is coming in 2011, too.

* Google won’t get hit with a major antitrust lawsuit that so many have been predicting for years. True, and it doesn’t look any more likely today.

So actually, I did pretty well, even if you could argue that some of those weren’t exactly stretches. Next up, predictions for 2011, and another opportunity to look like an idiot.

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: Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel may be best known for being an early investor in Facebook, though his investments look like a Who’s Who of hot (and once-hot) companies in latter-day Internet startups: Yelp, LinkedIn, Powerset, Friendster, Slide, and many more. The president of the hedge fund Clarium Capital, Thiel is speaking in a fireside chat with my onetime colleague Sarah Lacy at TechCrunch Disrupt this morning in San Francisco.

Q: Is Silicon Valley still the center of innovation? Thiel: Silicon Valley is still the center for a lot of technology innovation. But incredible stagnation in U.S. economy. One of the questions being asked about Silicon Valley is how are we actually doing things to make the country and the world better? Lately there’s not that much to move the dial, outside the Internet. We need to be spending a lot more time on breakthrough vs. incremental things (paraphrasing).

Q: A lot of people say it’s not up to VCs here to do basic science–an obstacle to cleantech development. Thiel: Says that’s true. (But) you want to be focused on some of the harder-tech companies.

Q: What’s the most far-out investment you’ve done? Space-X, Elon Musk’s rocket company. The economics are not terrible–people generally pay in advance for launches. It’s just the kind of thing that’s not in people’s mental framework to look at. We should go back to the 1950s and 1960s and look at the classic science fiction things that were supposed to happen–biotech, AI, …

Q: Back in 2006, you said we’re not in another Internet bubble? Were we, or are we now given even higher valuations? Thiel: I don’t think that we are at a crazy valuation point. I suspect Facebook is still among the most undervalued company in the Internet, even at $30 billion. If you had a choice between Google and Facebook, you should be long Facebook.

Q: Would you fund Facebook today? Thiel: We would not be categorically against it. But I think the angel/early VC thing feels very crowded. You have to be very careful. It’s not as contrarian as it was three or four years ago.

Q: Are we at the point with Internet companies like where auto industry was in 1950s? Thiel: More like 1940s. But it’s a lot harder to make incremental progress. So we’re more focused on breakthrough technology areas.

Q: Has Google joined the Microsoft category of companies that are not fundamentally innovators anymore? Thiel: Maybe not quite yet, but possibly. Apple still very innovative. By definition what is technology, what is disruptive, changes.

Q: What about Facebook–still innovative? Thiel: Yes–if Zuckerberg stays in charge.

Q: Is Zuckerberg an evil genius like the movie indicates? Thiel: I would beg to disagree. Hollywood is this nasty zero-sum game where everyone is trying to stomp on each other. I.e., not like Silicon Valley. If this movie encourages people to go create companies in Silicon Valley, that will be a good impact.

Q: What kind of investing do you like among all you do (venture, angel, hedge fund)? Thiel: I like them all. We haven’t invested in any cleantech companies. The challenge is to create something that’s cheaper than oil. To the extent it’s more expensive, it’s not going to work.

Apparently Thiel has an announcement: We’re offering 20 kids under 20 money to create something great. One of the big problems with the (higher) education system is just that it costs so much more. It’s a lot harder to take big risks. You can apply for the two-year program individually or with up to four partners, and get up to $100,000 to start companies.

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