Hello Many readers. This evening’s dispatch finds your intrepid guest blogger freshly home after a slog across the front lines of the social software revolution (except ‘home’ is temporarily some random high speed-enabled hotel in Palo Alto). The good fight was today being fought at the Bishop Auditorium at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business where various luminaries convened for a presentation and panel on the topic “Social Networking: Is There a Business Model?”.
My amazingly sporadic and piecemeal report follows …
First, all the talk of a bubble was given credence by the overflowing crowds at the mixer prior to the event. A check with the door people confirmed that not only had they sold out the event, but people were actually signing on to a waiting list and sitting around hoping to get in. Downstairs in the canteen and bar, it was difficult to breathe, let alone pitch VCs or potential employers — but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of this crowd. The smell of old skool neon- and metallic-inked WIRED pages was thick in the air.
After an introduction from incoming Stanford MIT Venture Lab chair Susan Ayers-Walker, moderator Tony Perkins took the stage and the ball rolling by announcing that Kleiner Perkins and Benchmark Capital have funded Friendster to the tune of $10 million. Friendster CEO and panelist for the evening, Jonathan Abrams, who was at that point still in the audience, shook his head. Tony gave a wry smile and noted that “the Benchmark guys just walked out the back door … that’s interesting“. [Note: all quotations are approximate, edited and from memory. And, Tony was kidding. Or was he? – Ed]
After announcing in various ways that he was right about many different things, Tony ceded the stage to Linkedin founder and CEO, Reid Hoffman who gave the evening’s formal presentation. Having been given the unenviable dual task of explaining the entrepreneural process in 2003 and giving an overview of social networking, Reid weilded his tight, to-the-point Powerpoint deck to an appreciative crowd.
As Abrams and fellow panelists Abrams, Andrew Anker, Ross Mayfield and Cynthia Typaldos took the stage, Marc Canter fired off the first question, something very much like “Linkedin is a closed garden, but what about bringing all these gardens together, and building some kind of irrigation, some kind of interoperability. Have you ever thought about that?”
Reid deadpanned, “Well Marc, since you’ve asked me that before, yes. Yes, I have thought about it.” (Tony: “FOAF off!”, the first of many attempts at FOAF humour.) Skepticism about the currently utility of FOAF was expressed, though Reid later took the briefest of rides on Marc’s hobby horse, acknowledging that the astute network owner will offer ‘profile portability’ when there is demanded from the customers. The event speeded up.
Tony: “Reid, in one of your slides you mentioned something called ‘wikis’. Sitting right next to you is the Queen of the Wikis, Ross Mayfield.” This caused an uncomfortable expression on Ross’ face and bewildered laughter throughout the room. A summary of Socialtext’s business followed.
Tony next pointed out that Cynthia is a woman and so shouldn’t be allowed to speak until the men were done. Thus, he skipped to Andrew Anker (a venture partner with August Capital: “In the old days, it seemed like every VC had to have a search engine. [Examples omitted.] Does every fund need a social networking play in its portfolio now?”
Andrew began, “I talked to Reid yesterday and said that I was going to be the skeptic on the panel. And then I got here and saw all the other VCs in the crowd. And I decided not to be.” (Others more attuned to the visages of Valley VCs assured this reporter that the room was indeed full of them, and even your naive Canadian interloper couldn’t help but notice that the nametags ending with “Capital” outnumbered those ending with “Software” or “Technologies” .)
In the event, Andrew’s skepticism was reduced to the resonable, “It’s a bubblet, not a bubble. There won’t be that many companies. And there has to be a business model.” (Bonus points for ‘bubblet’, surely the cutest diminutive ever for a macroeconomic phenomenon.)
Tony: “Andrew was just saying that there has be a business model. So, Jonathan, my friend, er, friendster, when they were signing the check over at KPCB, what did you tell them the business model was?” After a few flashes of what appears to have been a trademark grimace, Abrams took the strongest position of the evening, declaring that Friendster is not a social networking business and observing that “When I started Friendster, I never imagined that it would part of a ‘space'”.
In fact, Abrams deried the idea that there was any sort of space here at all, perhaps astutely adding that this buzz seemed to him like ‘push’ or ‘web servives’ — not just in being areas which ended up overinvested, but in that they were not real ‘areas’ to begin with, just loosely associated businesses (or pseudo-businesses) grouped around a hot topic. Abrams came away with the nice line “When I hear entrepreneurs and VCs talking about a space, it means there is trouble ahead.”
Tony, ever bringing the conversation back: “I’ll translate that. You’re saying to people: ‘don’t start social networking businesses’ . I don’t want any competition.” He added that he had his “bullshit detector here”. And ribbed Abrams one more time: “What was that? 10 million Series A with no liquidation preference?”
Finally Cynthia got her turn and offered her perspective from the Software Product Marketing eGroup, a member-controlled guild-like association: “We evaluated all these tools and found nothing that that really works. This is a free agent nation and our career information can’t be owned by some company. What we found in the end was that Blogger, some blogging tools like blogtalk, blogrolling, and yahoo groups we had all we needed. It’s amazing what you can do with all that stuff.”
Which brought it back to Ross, and then a lot of questions, most of which were directed at Reid and much general discussion and a noticable lack of note-taking by me.
Near the end Tony suggested that we may all look back at this day as the beginning of something huge, the point at which Internet 2.0 finds its metier. And it was apparent that there were many believers in the audience. The consensus answer, if there was one, to the question posed in the event’s title was “yes”.