Trusting platforms

In response to my post yesterday about how an internet of people has enabled a new wave of web-based marketplaces, Nick Mango commented:

There’s actually 2 levels of trust here. The first is knowing and trusting the person you’re buying from. And if you don’t know who they are, then you must move on to the second level of trust, which is do you know and trust the platform the person is using.

The ability to have “second order trust” is one of many reasons the internet has made so many institutions obsolete. Take the SEC’s role in policing private companies that market themselves to potential investors. This was sensible consumer protection back when the government was arguably the only organization that had the means and incentives to identify fraudulent investment schemes. But today we have many examples of websites that’ve built mechanisms for reliably tracking the reputations of individuals and organizations. This means the SEC could – in theory – make the unit of regulation platforms instead of investors and startups (something the crowdfunding bill being considered by Congress seems to do at least in part), which in turn could unleash a new wave of innovation among crowdfunding platforms and crowdfunded startups.

An internet of people

Over the past few years, a bunch of web-based marketplaces have gotten popular – Etsy, Kickstarter, AirBnb, to name a few. Many of these business ideas had been tried before but are succeeding only now.

When a trend like this emerges, it’s always interesting to ask “why now?” For example, for almost a decade, entrepreneurs tried to create video sharing services like YouTube, but only succeeded when certain key dependencies – broadband, digital video cameras, a version of Flash that “just worked” – became widespread.

I asked Roelof Botha the “why now” question regarding web-based marketplaces. He said something I thought was really interesting: marketplaces depend on trust, and trust requires knowing the reputation of a prospective counterparty. Today, for the first time, you can get background information on almost any prospective counterparty by searching Google, Facebook etc. Or put more simply: we finally have an internet of people.

Growth curves of startups

Pick whatever metric you want for gauging the success of a particular startup: profits, revenues, pageviews, etc. A graph I’d love to see is those metrics, graphed over time, for a wide variety of startups. From my experience, you’d be surprised how often those graphs show sudden growth. Something happens in the world (an “exogenous shock”) and the startup suddenly takes off.

I remember first observing this when I worked at Bessemer. For example, there was a startup that supplied services to video websites. For years, the company soldiered along, barely growing. Then, suddenly, YouTube blew up and this company took off along with it.

As a founder, these exogenous shocks are out of your control, but you can 1) understand what exogenous shocks you depend on, 2) try to guess when those shocks will hit, 3) manage your runway so you survive long enough for them to hit.

Pivoting into a new corporate structure

This hasn’t happened to me, but I keep hearing stories about situations like the following: 1) startup raises a seed financing round while working on a preliminary idea, 2) founders later “pivot” into a new idea that looks more promising and/or gains traction, 3) founders decide to raise a new round of financing, 4) founders argue that the new idea is so different from the original one that it should be part of a new company, and that the original seed investors shouldn’t own any part of it.

At Founder Collective, we think of ourselves as investing primarily in people, and only secondarily in ideas or products. I have to admit that until I heard about these situations happening, I hadn’t even conceived of the possibility of “pivots into new corporate structures”. In retrospect, I suppose it was inevitable given the founder-friendly market and the rapidly evolving venture environment.

As a legal matter, assuming the founders worked on the idea on the original company’s time and/or money, the seed investors probably have a strong claim. Founders and employees normally sign “invention assignment” agreements that would make the new ideas and products property of the original company (again, these aren’t situations I’m personally involved in so I am just speculating on the specifics).  The reality is that most professional seed investors aren’t going to sue founders and will likely instead try to work out some compromise.

This is not to suggest, by the way, that founders are indentured servants to investors. It is perfectly fine, if an idea isn’t working out, to wind down the company, return the remaining capital, and go off and work on new ideas. If one of those new ideas shows promise, the founders are then (legally and morally) free to form a new corporate entity and raise new financing from whomever they choose. From news reports, it sounds like this is what the Odeo team did before they pivoted to Twitter. It’s the conventional and, in my view, correct way to handle these situations.

Here’s what really worries me. If it becomes a norm for founders to jettison seed investors when their company’s focus changes, seed investors who invest “primarily in people” will stop doing so. I think that would be a real shame: we’d lose an important source of capital and a lot of innovative startups wouldn’t get funded.

Google’s social strategy

It is widely believed that Facebook presents a significant competitive threat to Google. Google itself seems to believe this – Larry Page recently said that all employees would have their bonuses tied to the success of Google’s social strategy.

Why does Facebook present a threat to Google?  A few reasons:

– The utility of Google’s core product – web search – depends on the web remaining fragmented and crawlable.  Facebook has become the primary place web users spend their time and create content, and is mostly closed to Google’s crawlers.

– Facebook controls a large percentage of ad impressions and will likely launch an off-Facebook.com display ad network to compete directly with Google’s display ad business (built from its $3.1B acquisition DoubleClick). It is generally thought that display ads will become a larger portion of online advertising spend (versus direct response text link ads) as more brand advertising moves online.

– There are many other “wildcard” risks – e.g. Facebook competing with Google (and Apple, Paypal etc) in payments, Facebook gaining power on mobile (threatening Android), and the possibility of a greater share of internet intent harvesting happening on Facebook through not-yet-released features like a search and/or shopping engine.

When going after Facebook, Google has at least three key strategic choices to make:

Strategic choice #1: Should Google try to make social networking commoditized or new profit center? (For more about what I mean by this, please see this post on Google’s overall strategy and these posts on “commoditizing the complement” herehere and here).

The advantage of creating a new social networking profit center is obvious: if you win, you make lots of money. The advantage of commoditizing social networking is that although you forgo the potential direct profits, you open up a wider range of pricing and product options. For example:

– When you try to commoditize a product, you can offer a product for free that other companies charge for. This is what Google did with Android vs iOS and Google Apps vs Microsoft Office. Of course, making social networking free to users won’t work since Facebook doesn’t directly charge users (I say “directly” because they make money off advertising & payment commissions, among other ways). However reducing the cost to zero for 3rd-party developers like Zynga who have to pay Facebook large commissions would entice them toward a Google platform (note that, not coincidentally, Google invested $100M in Zynga).

– Interoperate / embrace open standards – Normals don’t care whether a product uses open standards, but by interoperating with other social networks, messaging systems, check-in services, etc., Google could encourage 3rd-party developers to build on their platform. If Google chose, say, RSS for their messaging system, it would already work with tens of thousands of existing tools and websites and would be readily embraced by hackers in the open source community. The web itself (http/html) and email (smtp) are famous examples where the choice to open them unleashed huge waves of innovation and (eventually) killed off closed competitors like AOL.

Strategic choice #2: How should Google tie its new social products into its existing products?

Besides a mountain of cash ($30B net, generating $10B more per year), Google has many existing assets on top of which to build. Google Buzz tried to build off of the “implicit social network” of Gmail contacts, which hasn’t seemed to work so far and raised privacy concerns.

Google’s recent mini-launch of its “+1″ button seems to be good use of the strategy known as “anchoring”. Google is apparently trying to create a federated network where websites embed +1 buttons  the way they embed Facebook’s Like button except the +1 button would be a signal into Google’s organic ranking algorithm (as an aside, this is where Gmail becomes useful as having millions of logged in users makes spamming +1 buttons much harder). Websites care a lot about their Google organic search rankings (which is why, for example, helping websites improve their rankings is multibillion-dollar industry).  A button that improved search rankings would likely get prominent placement by many websites. Making +1 appealing to users is another story.  The user value is much clearer for the Facebook Like and Twitter Tweet buttons – you send the link to your friends/followers. Providing value to users in addition to websites is a good reason for Google to acquire Twitter (something I think is inevitable if Google is serious about social – see below).

Finally, Android and YouTube are intriguing potential anchors for a social strategy. I’ll leave it to smarter people to figure out exactly how, but products with such large footprints always present interesting tie-in opportunities.

Strategic Choice #3: Should Google buy or build?

Historically, it is very rare to see tech companies adjust their “DNA” from within. Google’s best new lines of business over the past few years came through the acquisitions of YouTube and Android. Moreover, these acquisition were unusual in that they were left as semi-independent business units. Facebook’s hold on social is incredibly strong – besides the super-strong network effects of its social graph, Facebook has made itself core infrastructure (e.g. Facebook Connect) throughout the web. If Google really wants to catch up, they’ll need to go back to the strategy they succeeded with in the past of acquiring relevant companies and letting them run as separate business units.

* Disclosure: I’m an investor in a bunch of startups, so you could reasonably argue I’m highly biased here.