Builders and extractors

Tim O’Reilly poses a question every entrepreneur and investor should consider: are you creating more value for others than you capture for yourself? Google makes billions of dollars in annual profits, but generates many times that in productivity gains for other people. Having a positive social contribution isn’t limited to non-profit organizations – non-profits just happen to have a zero in the “value capture” column of the ledger. Wall Street stands at the other extreme: boatloads of value capture and very little value creation.

I think of people who aim to create more value than they capture as “builders” and people who don’t as “extractors.” Most entrepreneurs are natural-born builders. They want to create something from nothing and are happy to see the benefits of their labor spill over to others. Sadly, the builder mindset isn’t as widespread among investors. I recently heard a well-known Boston VC say: “There are 15 good deals a year and our job is to try to win those deals” – a statement that epitomizes the passive, extractor mindset. The problem with VC seed programs is they not only fail to enlarge the pie, they actually shrink it by making otherwise fundable companies unfundable through negative signaling.

The good news is there is a large – and growing – class of investors with the builder mindset. Y Combinator and similar mentorship programs are true builders: their startups probably wouldn’t have existed without them (and the founders might have ended up at big companies). There are also lots of angel and seed investors who are builders. A few that come to mind: Ron Conway, Chris Sacca, Mike Maples (Floodgate), Roger Ehrenberg, Keith Rabois, Ken Lehrer, Jeff Clavier, Betaworks, Steve Anderson, and Aydin Senkut. There are also VCs who are builders. Ones that I’ve worked with directly recently include Union Square, True, Bessemer, Khosla, Index, and First Round.

Given that there is a surplus of venture money, entrepreneurs and seed investors now have the luxury of choosing to work with builders and avoid extractors. Hopefully over time this will weed out the extractors.

While Google fights on the edges, Amazon is attacking their core

Google is fighting battles on almost every front:  social networking, mobile operating systems, web browsers, office apps, and so on.  Much of this makes sense, inasmuch as it is strategic for them to dominate or commoditize each layer that stands between human beings and online ads.  But while they are doing this, they are leaving their core business vulnerable, particularly to Amazon.

When legendary VC John Doerr quit Amazon’s board a few months ago, savvy industry observers like TechCrunch speculated that Google might begin directly competing with Amazon:

[Google] competes with Amazon in a number of areas, particularly web services and big data. And down the road, Google may compete directly in other ways as well. Froogle was a flop, but don’t think Google doesn’t want a bigger chunk of ecommerce revenue from people who begin their product searches on their search engine.*

In fact, Google and Amazon’s are already direct competitors in their core businesses. Like Amazon, Google makes the vast majority of its revenue from users who are looking to make an online purchase. Other query types – searches related to news, blog posts, funny videos, etc. – are mostly a loss leaders for Google.

The key risk for Google is that they are heavily dependent on online purchasing being a two-stage process:  the user does a search on Google, and then clicks on an ad to buy something on another site. As long as the e-commerce world is sufficiently fragmented, users will prefer an intermediary like Google to help them find the right product or merchant. But as Amazon increasingly dominates the e-commerce market, this fragmentation could go away along with users’ need for an intermediary.**

Moreover, Google’s algorithmic results for product searches are generally poor. (Try using Google to decide what dishwasher to buy). These poor results might actually lead to short term revenue increases since the sponsored links are superior to the unsponsored ones.  But long term if Google continues producing poor product search results and Amazon continues consolidating the e-commerce market, Google’s core business is at serious risk.

* Froogle (and Google Products) have been unsuccessful most likely because Google has had no incentive to make them better: they make plenty of money on these queries already on a CPC basis, and would likely make less if they moved to a CPA model.

** Most Amazon Prime customers probably already do skip Google and go directly to Amazon.  I know I do.

Facebook is about to try to dominate display ads the way Google dominates text ads

It is customary to divide online advertising into two categories: direct response and brand advertising. I prefer instead to divide it according to the mindset of users: whether or not they are actively looking to purchase something (i.e. they have purchasing intent).*

When users are actively looking to purchase something, they typically go to search engines or e-commerce sites. Through advertising or direct sales, these sites harvest intent. Google and Amazon are the biggest financial beneficiaries of intent harvesting.

When the user is not actively looking to buy something, the goal of an online ad is to generate intent. The intent generation market is still fairly fragmented and will grow rapidly over the next few years as brand advertising increasingly moves online. P&G – which alone spends almost $4B/year on brand advertising – needs to convince the next generation of consumers that Crest is better than Colgate. This is why Google paid such a premium for Doubleclick, Yahoo for Right Media, and Microsoft for aQuantive (MS’s biggest acquisition ever).

In 2003, Google introduced AdSense, a program to syndicate their intent harvesting text ads beyond Google’s main property Google.com.  The playbook they followed was: use their popular website to build a critical mass of advertisers; then use that critical mass to run an off-property network that offers the highest payouts to publishers. AdSense became so dominant that competitors like Yahoo quit the syndicated ad business altogether. Today, Google has such a powerful position that they don’t disclose percentage revenue splits to publishers and extract the vast majority of the profits.

It is widely believed that Facebook will soon follow the AdSense playbook by introducing an off-property ad network. They’ll try to use their strong base of advertisers to dominate intent generating ads the way AdSense dominated intent harvesting ads.

But to win the intent generation ad battle, data is as important as a critical mass of advertisers. For intent harvesting, users simply type what they are looking for into a search box. For intent generating ads, you need to use data to make inferences about what might influence the user.

This is what the introduction of the Facebook Like button is all about.  Intent generating ads – which mostly means displays ads – have notoriously low click through rates (well below 1%). Attempts to improve these numbers through demographics have basically failed. Many startups are having success using social data to target ads today. But the holy grail for targeting intent generating ads is taste data – which basically means what the user likes. Knowing, for example, that a user liked Avatar is an incredibly useful datapoint for targeting an Avatar 2 ad.

Publishers who adopt Facebook’s Like feature may get more traffic and perhaps a better user experience as a result.  But they should hope the intent generation ad market doesn’t end up like the intent harvesting ad market – with one dominant player commanding the lion’s share of the profits.

* Most text ads are about intent harvesting and most display ads are about intent generation, but they are not coreferential distinctions. For example, with techniques like “search retargeting” (you do a Google search for washing machines and the later on another site see a display ad for washing machines), sometimes intent harvesting is delivered through display ads.

The tradeoff between open and closed

When having the “open vs closed” debate regarding a technology platform, a number of distinctions need to be made. First, what exactly is meant by “open.” Here’s a great chart from a paper by Harvard professor Tom Eisenmann (et al).:

(Eisenmann acknlowledges the iPhone isn’t fully open to the end user – in the US you need to use AT&T, etc.  I would argue the iPhone is semi-open to the app developer and mobile app development was effectively closed prior to the iPhone. But the main point here is that platforms can be open & closed in many different ways, at different levels, etc.)

The next important distinction is whose interest you are considering when asking what and when to open or close things.  I think there are at least 3 interesting perspectives:

The company: Lots of people have written about this topic (Clay Christensen, Joel Spolsky, more Eisenmann here).   In a nutshell, there are times when a company, acting solely in its self-interest, should close things and other times they should open things.  As a rule of thumb, a company should close their core assets and open/commoditize complementary assets. Google’s search engine is their core asset and therefore Google should want to keep it closed, whereas the operating system is a complement that they should commoditize (my full analysis of what Google should want to own vs commoditize is here). Facebook’s social graph is their core asset so it’s optimal to close it and not interoperate with other graphs, whereas marking up web pages to be more social-network friendly (open graph protocol) is complementary hence optimal for FB to open.  (With respect to social graphs interoperating (e.g. Open Social), it’s generally in the interest of smaller graphs to interoperate and larger ones not to – the same is true of IM networks).  Note that I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with Google and Facebook or any other company keeping closed or trying to open things according to their own best interests.

The industry: When I say “what is good for the industry” I mean what ultimately creates the most aggregate industry-wide shareholder value.  I assume (hope?) this also yields the maximum innovation.  As an active tech entrepreneur and investor I think my personal interests and the tech industry’s interests are mostly aligned (hence you could argue I’m talking my book).  Unfortunately it’s much easier to study open vs. closed strategies at the level of the firm than at the level of an industry, because there are far more “split test” cases to study.  What would the world be like if email (SMTP) were controlled by a single company?  I would tend to think a far less innovative and wealthy one. There are a number of multibillion dollar industries built on email: email clients, webmail systems, email marketing, anti-spam, etc.  The downside of openness is that it’s very hard to upgrade SMTP since you need to get so many parties to agree and coordinate.  So, for example, it has taken forever to add basic anti-spam authentication features to SMTP.  Twitter on the other hand can unilaterally add useful new things like their recent annotations feature.

Here’s what Professor Eisenmann said when I asked him to summarize the state of economic thinking on the topic:

With respect to your question about the impact of open vs closed on the economy, the hard-core economists cited in my book chapter have a lot to say, but it all boils down to “it depends.” Closed platform provides more incentive for innovation because platform owner can collect and redistribute more rent and can ensure that there’s a manageable level of competition in any given application category. Open platform harnesses strong network effects, attracting more application developers, and  thus stimulates lots of competition. There’s some interesting recent work that suggests that markets may evolve in directions that favor the presence of one strong closed player plus one strong open player (consider: Windows + Linux; iPhone + Android). In this scenario, society/economy gets best of both approaches.

Society:  I tend to think what is good for the tech industry is generally good for society.  But others certainly have different views.  Advocates of openness are often accused of being socialist hippies.  Maybe some are.  I am not.  I care about the tech industry.  I think it’s reasonable to question whether moves by large industry players are good or bad for the industry.  Unfortunately most of the debate I’ve seen so far seems driven by ideology and name calling.

News is a lousy business for Google too

There is a widespread myth that search engines have taken profits away from news websites. A few months ago, Rupert Murdoch said: “Google has devised a brilliant business model that avoids paying for news gathering yet profits off the search ads sold around that content.”

The reality is that news is a lousy business. Period. Even Google doesn’t make money on it. For example, here are Google’s search results for the phrase “afghanistan war”:

Notice there aren’t any ads on the page. This is because ads for “afghanistan war” generate such low revenues per query that Google doesn’t think it’s worth hurting the user experience with a cluttered page. Google can afford to do this on news queries (along with many other categories of queries) because their real business is selling ads on queries where the user likely has purchasing intent. Big money-making categories include travel, consumer electronics and malpractice lawyers. News queries are loss leaders.

It’s an historical accident that hard news categories like international and investigative reporting were part of profitable businesses. The internet upended this model by 1) providing a new delivery method for classified ads (mainly Craigslist), 2) increasing the supply of newspapers from 1-2 per location to thousands per location, thereby driving the willingness-to-pay for news dramatically down, and 3) unbundling news categories, making cross subsidization increasingly hard.

The internet exposed hard news for what it is: a lousy standalone business. Google arguably contributed to this in many indirect ways, including by helping users find substitute news sources. But the idea that Google takes profits directly from newspapers is simply misinformed.