Category Archives: business

Twitter’s Platform Mojo

Betaworks’ John Borthwick recently posted the informative Ongoing tracking of the real time web…  Combined with Fred Wilson’s AVC post Twitter v. the Twitter Ecosystem, these two posts illustrate and highlight important learnings for startups and entrepreneurs everywhere.  Those learnings are the subject of this post. 

The key points of this post are: (1) Twitter is indeed a platform; and (2) platforms’ own profitability are related not a little bit to the revenue driving capabilities of those partners that build on the platform.  Twitter has clearly enabled other applications to create and build innovative services, a la Tweetdeck, Seesmic, Bit.ly, etc.  These are great as they extend Twitter’s value even further.   Over time, we should expect that the traffic through the platform will dwarf the traffic of the application/web site called Twitter.  This is a useful illustration for web- internet-based entrepreneurs on the value of platform building in a business.  Here’s what I mean…

I give a talk called Revenue: Of Moats & Models in Silicon Valley.  The purpose of this talk is to help the very early stage startup—ideally the 1-2 founder team in the garage—frame quickly and easily how to think about revenue and building their business.  One of the things that I talk about a lot is thinking through how to build a fly-wheel in your business.  Some people call this a “platform play,” but I tend to prefer a more crisp illustration of a positive feedback loop.  The steps that I illustrate and walk through with founders is one that is simple and seems to resonate with most founders.  The steps are:

  1. Create something users want.  (Smart, effective founders recognize this as the Paul Graham [YC] mantra.  It totally makes sense—this is step 1, without this you’ve got nothing.)
  2. Build user base and share leadership.  (This is just about extending step 1 into momentum.)
  3. Create a extension that attracts and enables a second stakeholder group.  E.g., application developers who want to access your users; teachers who want to access your students; advertisers who want to sell stuff, etc., etc.
  4. Empower that second stakeholder group to reinforce and extend the value to the core users who you started with in step 1.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat. 

This is a very basic description of the positive feedback loop that the vast majority of massive tech companies have used to achieve their dominance—Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Apple Iphone, etc.   Sometimes tech folks will look all dreamy eyed and say the words “platform play,” and this is probably what they mean (or should be).  Specifically, the platform means that there is a second stakeholder group that is specifically betting on you to make money, gain share, whatever for themselves. 

In the talk I give, I suggest or recommend that the founding team spend an hour or two trying to think about building that precise feedback loop around their idea.  I contend that this can be a useful exercise, one more should do.

Part of the reason this exercise is so useful is now highlighted with the blog posts that I started this off with.   What Borthwick and Wilson are both highlighting is something that has been obvious to me for months: namely that the power of Twitter is as a Platform, not as an Application.  Others – bit.ly, tweetdeck, tweetfeed, etc. – are now investing their R&D budgets, engineering talent, marketing efforts towards extending brands that build on Twitter.  Twitter as the platform enables this, and Twitter gets some benefit by having these partners do this work.  This is all great, and it reinforces arguments I’ve made before on this blog about why skeptics focusing on Twitter traffic or retention, while important, is probably less important than the health of its ecosystem. 

The second thing that I’d illustrate on Twitter as a Platform is a point that’s common to most platforms but not well understood.  Namely, while platforms on their own can be massive from a revenue and profitability standpoint, over time, healthy platforms can pale in comparison to the revenue pool created for the partners betting on the platform.

Microsoft’s Windows business is a great example.  According to MSFT’s Annual Report, the Windows division pulls in roughly $16B in revenue, and makes >$12B in operating income.  (What a machine!)  This is awesome.  What is also awesome though, is that you are probably talking about an order of magnitude in terms of the amount of revenue that the partner ecosystem makes. 

Same thing with Google.  Massive revenue, massive margins.  But the amount of money that advertisers are making through getting direct contact with users, massive.  Facebook, starting to show the same thing.  Its an awesome thing on its own, but as Zynga, Playdom and others are showing, they are making massive amounts of money on the Facebook platform.  As Facebook extends, I expect to see even more companies making more money off of them.

This brings us back to Twitter.  As I’ve said before, its easy to think that Twitter is too simple to be a viable business.  That’s wrong-headed.  Twitter is en route to becoming the platform for the real-time web.  As I’ve said, it will create massive value for its users, employees, founders, and investors.   To me, the key quesiton with Twitter is not whether it will continue to thrive in users and traffic (it will), or whether it will make money (it will).  The question for me is whether its ecosystem will find ways to make real money, as this is ultimately a partner ecosystem’s profitability is ultimately the best way for a platform to ensure its long-term viability.

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Google & China: An Operator’s View

Google’s announcement Tuesday that it was mad as hell and not going to take it anymore was its second bombshell in a new 2010.  (I count the first being the announcement of the Nexus One, which I think is very possibly a hugely important step for Google as a company.)

Instapundits leapt on the announcement.  Some–TechCrunch notably–stating that it was all about Google finding a graceful exit.  Others—Robert Scoble, SearchEngine Land Sullivan, and others, defending the move as a principled stand.  As someone who’s worked internationally on building businesses, I’m firmly in the Scoble camp.

The idea that this is some cynical move to enable Google to exit China gracefully is ridiculous.  Google is a massive public company, seeking a growth trajectory that goes for decades.  Aside from all the great points Scoble makes on his post on this–which I agree with entirely–the simple math states that Google can’t not be in China long-term.  Later this year, China will become the world’s largest economy that is not the United States, etc.  Huge potential market. 

The second piece to this equation is that its not as though Google’s pouring so much money down a hole with China that earnings are hurting.  Indeed, Google’s trajectory on cash flow, earnings, etc., all are moving in the right direction.  Earnings calls don’t lead Google’s CFO to fend off nervous investors, anxious at the out of control spend in China.  Huge potential market without materially impactful investment—sounds like something Google would want to do. 

So that cost/benefit analysis is straightforward.  The other element to this though that’s been missed is simply that international business is hard.  In Silicon Valley, we like the narrative of overnight success.   And to be sure, Google has achieved unprecedented things in its 11-12 year existence.  Still, Google has been in China for 4 years.  The time between Olympics; the length of most people’s undergraduate career.  That Google has not convincingly “won” in that timeframe is not at all a sign that the race is over.  At least it wouldn’t be to anyone who’s ever built or worked on a business overseas.  With international businesses, you have a whole set of issues around who to hire, how to implement a culture that retains the specific elements to the native culture while still being connected to the headquarters, there’s often differences in business models or price sensitivities of customers, etc., etc., etc.  4 years is the blink of an eye for this type of thing.  The idea that Google’s crying uncle at the end of 4 years because China is just too hard a market to win is quite naive and nonsense to anyone who’s been a manager in an international business. 

Given that view, I’ve found Google’s stance really extraordinary.  It will be fascinating to watch the dialogue between China and Google as this conversation progreses. 

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Startup Revenue: Moats & Models

I’m giving a speech tomorrow at the Founder Showcase in Santa Clara.  The topic is around building revenue for startups.  The slides are here:

These build on a prior talk I gave in 2009 on this topic, and I’m looking forward to it.

To give my cliff notes here of the speech, it’s basically:

Revenue is the lifeblood, getting to revenue is nice, very nice. 

Some advise not to think about revenue too early on in the life of a startup.  The thinking goes: focus entirely on building something great, get an audience, then the revenue pieces will start to work themselves out.  I disagree with this philosophy in part. 

I totally agree with the idea that 100% of your focus needs to be on building something people want and driving to iterate, iterate, iterate.  At the same time, I advocate thinking about revenue–at least a little bit–early in the lifecycle of starting a company. Don’t get derailed, but at the same time, don’t avoid the topic entirely.  My rationale is simple—you never know what small thing will someday be the determiner of success or failure, so thinking about something important like revenue is a good thing to at least wrap your head around. 

The talk then goes into two parts.  Part 1 is about building out a business to think about how you’ll establish moats and drive traction.  This is about defensibility in part; its also, however about driving distribution (at least in internet businesses).  I argue that any founder should likely try to draw out the model that I’m advocating here—may not be relevant to you, but I’d think you’d at least want to try. 

Then Part II is about models.  I’ll talk about my thoughts on types of revenue models, a sort of revenue model 101.  Nothing too revolutionary here, but hopefully a useful primer if you’ve not thought through a business model before.  I then finish off with a brief description of how to think about your market as a whole.  An industry or market model, i.e., the macro picture of the environment in which you operate is something that entrepreneurs will very likely need to be able to grasp and exercise their minds about. I’ll provide some quick thoughts on how I view that as working well and not well. 

Hope to see you there!

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Shortening Shorteners

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URL Shortening services like bit.ly, ow.ly, and others have exploded recently (shortly) onto the social internet’s stage.  What seemed to start as way to get links small enough to fit into a tweet or to make it easier to paste into a mail, Shorteners are responsible for a flood of link sharing with literally billions of links getting shortened and sent around.

Last week, TechCrunch‘s Erick Schonfeld wrote a two interesting articles: “What Happened to Bit.Ly’s Market Share,” and “Lies, Damn Lies, and How to Get Under John Borthwick’s Skin,” In these, Schonfeld discusses the discrepancies in market share statistics for bit.ly, and whether it was truly as dominating as it had seemed to be.

Here’s my read of bit.ly and the Shorteners business overall based on these articles.  First off, the most interesting part of the pie chart Schonfeld showed was the “Other” category–apparently now 26.19% of Shortener traffic is coming from this category.  Look for this Other number to grow.  And look for big names, particularly in the social media space, to show up as players here–think Facebook, Google, even groups like WSJ, LinkedIn, etc.  As a result, to net/net things out, I don’t foresee one dominant, winner takes all default URL shortener.

Here’s basically why.  First off the task of shortening is not all that challenging a thing to do.  Second, media (social or otherwise) brands will quickly realize that there’s gold in them thar links, and they’ll want to have a handle on the link flow within and beyond their purview.  So this business is not necessarily hard to create a good customer experience for and it can drive value in broad media channels.  I’d say expect lots of entrants.

I tend to use Bit.ly, and I tend to like their analytics view of things.  That said, I also expect that in 10 years, we’ll look back on the Shortener business as this quaint inter-regnum period in the evolution of the social web, after which point, any link I want to shorten is easily saved, shortened and shared with open analytics, etc., etc.

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Meet the new boss… same as the old boss

Just got back from Tokyo tonight, and am blogging my way through some nasty jet lag.  One of the benefits I find of the hurly-whirly spin cycle known as business travel to Asia is the opportunity to pick up morsels here and there of what’s going on outside the normal bubble of my life.  Jet-lagged at 3am in Tokyo, I can read an entire newspaper’s editorial page, for example.  I also caught up on TechCrunch, etc.

Anyway, I saw a few data points or patterns that I’m matching now.  Rupert Murdoch this week wrote a fine piece on the future of newspapers and journalism here.  Basically his point: the journalism business can thrive in the new media era; stop whining.  Around the same time, I saw this TechCrunch article talking about the top 10 “viral” videos of 2009.  The thrust of this article: most of the most “viral” videos are in fact, heavily produced music videos from A-list stars.

What these two examples argue, together, is thatmainstream media is figuring out and getting its control over the internet.  Arguments that there was going to be this atomization of content, that we were in a “Long Tail” world are all fine and good, but at the end of the day, the big media dogs are going to keep pulling the sled.  My view–some of the less hard core business people in media are and will remain screwed.  The NYT, for example, is I think in a death spiral.  Others, the WSJ is the best example, with Murdoch’s leadership is going to enter a golden age, where it lets othe leaders get crushed by a wave for freedom, while he continues to unapologetically move for profit, growth and marketshare.

Smae thing with msuic–we’re not seeing the end of big-name acts in favor of millions of little ones.  No, I think the A-list artists will be that much more prominent and dominating culturally.  There will still be a number of long tail acts, but the ones in the middle will totally get crushed.

The rich will get richer in the media world.

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Interesting Bessemer move to get Designer in Residence

TechCrunch reports that Bessemer has hired Jason Putorti, from Mint, as a Designer in Residence.

Interesting move for them, promising.

Gives Bessemer and their portfolio access to someone who can really help with a key discipline across the consumer internet properties they have.  If nothing else, having good clean design will pretty up sites.

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Good, if painful, signal from New MySpace Leadership

Today announcements of sharp people cuts at MySpace hit and hit hard.  This is a painful step, and my sympathies go out to any employee impacted.  I take no pleasure or glee in poking fun at this.  I’m sure that in the coming days, plenty of press will focus on more salacious elements of the moves, the pain inside MySpace, whether offices are remaining open, etc.  The story of growing so quickly, getting bought by News Corporation, followed by the rapid flattening of growth–all within the span of a few years–is just too much of a story to pass up for many.

That’s not my focus.  Instead, I’d like to write and applaud Owen Van Natta and his exec team for moving quickly to cut down while they try to figure out what to do.  In a post I wrote upon the announcement of Mr. Van Natta’s appointment to the role, I suggested that I’d be watching for 3 things–(1) a focus on scenarios, (2) execution, and (3) any cultural phenomenon starting in MySpace versus the other tools (Twit, FBK, etc.).  Given that it’s been less than one month, I’d say that taking the step of cutting back this fast and this hard is an example of execution.  It’s a painful sign, but a good one. I’d not expected such decisiveness here to be honest.

I think this is a good move, not just because it helps signal an execution focus.  I think it also helps the team that remains get hunkered down to figure out what the heck they’re actually going to go do.  The features and scenarios that might help them get ahead are not ones that should take tons of people.  Instead, they need a tight focus with highly motivated superstars–hard to do that when you’ve got wave after wave of layoffs.  Better to just get the cut done big and fast.  So kudos to the leaders of MySpace for having the courage to get after this fast.

MySpace still has miles to go before it sleeps.  But I’d say that this is on the whole a good sign, and I’ll be interested to see what’s next with them.

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