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The Dangerous Seduction of the Lifetime Value (LTV) Formula

Posted on September 4, 2012. Filed under: advertising, Internet, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , , , , , , |

Many consumer Internet business executives are loyalists of the Lifetime Value model, often referred to as the LTV model or formula. Lifetime value is the net present value of the profit stream of a customer. This concept, which appears on the surface to be quite benign, is typically used to compare the costs of acquiring a customer (often referred to as SAC, which stands for Subscriber Acquisition Costs) with the discounted positive cash flows that will come from that customer over time. As long as the sum of the discounted future cash flows are significantly higher than the SAC, then people will argue it is warranted to “push the accelerator,” which typically means burning capital by aggressively spending on marketing.

This is a simplified version of the formula:

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The key statistics are as follows:

  • ARPU (average revenue per user)
  • Avg. Cust. Lifetime, n (This is the inverse of the churn, n=1/[annual churn])
  • WACC (weighted average cost of capital)
  • Costs (annual costs to support the user in a given period)
  • SAC (subscriber acquisition costs, sometimes refereed to as CAC = customer acquisition costs)

The LTV formula, when used correctly, can be a good tactical tool for monitoring and comparing like-minded variable market programs, especially across channels. But like any model, its proper use is entirely dependent on the assumptions used in that model. Also, people who have a hidden agenda or who confuse a model with reality can misuse it. For many companies that subscribe to its wisdom, the formula slowly takes on more importance than it should. Seduced by the model, its practitioners often lose sight of the more important elements of corporate strategy, and become narrowly fixated on the dogmatic execution of the formula. In these cases, the formula can be confused, misused, and abused, much to the detriment of the business, and in many cases the customer as well.

Here are ten reasons to avoid worshiping at the LTV altar:

  1. It’s a Tool, Not a Strategy.  Heavy LTV companies forget that the LTV model does not create sustainable competitive advantage. You shouldn’t’ confuse output with input. The LTV formula is a measurement tool to be used by marketing to test the effectiveness of their marketing spend – nothing more and nothing less. If one asserts that buying customers below what they charge them is a corporate strategy, this is in essence an arbitrage game, and arbitrage games rarely last. Too many of the variables (specifically ARPU and SAC) are outside of your control, and nothing would prevent another player from executing the exact same strategy. It’s not rocket science; it’s a formula that any business school graduate can calculate. Do not fool yourself into believing it creates a proprietary advantage.
  2. The LTV Model Is Used To Rationalize Marketing Spending.  Marketing executives like big budgets, as big budgets make it easier to grow the top line.  The LTV formula “relaxes” the need for near term profitability and “justifies” the ability to play it forward – to spend today for benefits that are postponed into the future. It is no coincidence that companies that put a heavy emphasis on LTV are also the ones that have massive losses as they scale, frequently even through an IPO. Consider that most companies limit any “affiliate fee” they would be willing to spend to 5-10% of sales. Yet when they are marketing, they use different math. They use LTV math, and all the sudden it’s acceptable to spend 30-50% of revenue on customer acquisition. Find the most boisterous executive recommending excessive spending, and you will usually find a loyal servant of the LTV religion.
  3. The Model is Confused and Misused. Frequently the same group that is arguing for more spending is the same one that “owns” the LTV calculation. (This is a mistake – finance should monitor LTV).  As a result, it is not uncommon for one to see shortcuts taken that allow for greater freedom. As an example, marketers often divide spend by total customers to calculate SAC rather than just those customers that were “purchased.” If you have organic customers, they shouldn’t be included in the spend calculus. They would have arrived regardless of spend. Also, many people discount “revenues” rather than marginal cash contribution. It is critical to bundle all future variable costs of supporting the customer in order to fairly estimate the future contribution. As an example of the sloppiness that exists around the formula, consider this blog post (http://blog.kissmetrics.com/how-to-calculate-lifetime-value/) from KISS metrics, a company whose aim is to “help you make smarter business decisions.” Not only do they include a version of the model that specifically ignores future costs, but also they recommend taking an average of three different results, two of which are clearly flawed. This voodoo-math has no place as part of a multi-million dollar marketing exercise.
  4. Business Isn’t Physics – The Formula Is Not Absolute. LTV zealots often hold an overly confident view of the predictive nature of the formula. It’s not “hard science” like say predicting gravity. It’s at best a “good guess” about how the future will unfold. Businesses are complex adaptive systems that cannot be modeled with certainty. The future LTV results are simply predictions based on many assumptions that may or may not hold. Yet the LTV practitioner often moves forward with a brazen naiveté, evocative of the first time stock buyer who just found out about the price/earnings ratio, or the newcomer to Vegas who has just been taught the basics of twenty-one. LTV models win arguments because executives perceive them to be grounded in science. Just because its math, doesn’t mean its good math.
  5. The LTV Variables “Tug” at One Another. This may be the single most important issue and it lies at the heart of why the LTV model eventually breaks down and fails to scale ad infinitum. Tren Griffin, a close friend that has worked for both Craig McCaw and Bill Gates refers to the five variables of the LTV formula as the five horsemen. What he envisions is that a rope connects them all, and they are all facing different directions. When one horse pulls one way, it makes it more difficult for the other horse to go his direction. Tren’s view is that the variables of the LTV formula are interdependent not independent, and are an overly simplified abstraction of reality. If you try to raise ARPU (price) you will naturally increase churn. If you try to grow faster by spending more on marketing, your SAC will rise (assuming a finite amount of opportunities to buy customers, which is true). Churn may rise also, as a more aggressive program will likely capture customers of a lower quality. As another example, if you beef up customer service to improve churn, you directly impact future costs, and therefore deteriorate the potential cash flow contribution. Ironically, many company presentations show all metrics improving as you head into the future. This is unlikely to play out in reality.
  6. Growing Becomes a Grind. Let’s say you have a company that estimates it will do $100mm in revenue this year, $200mm the next, and $400mm the year after that. In order to accomplish those goals it is going to invest heavily in marketing – say 50% of revenues. So the budget for the next three years is $50mm, $100mm, and $200mm. How realistic is it to assume that your SAC will drop as you 4X your spend? Supply and demand analysis suggests the exact opposite outcome. As you try to buy more and more of a limited good, the price will inherently increase. The number one place on the planet for marketing spend is Google Adwords, and make no mistake about it, this is an increasingly finite resource. Click-outs are not growing at a meaningful pace, and key word purchases are highly contested. Assuming you will “get better” at buying while trying to buy more is a daunting assumption. The game will likely get tougher not easier.
  7. Purchased Customers Underperform Organic on Almost Every Metric. Organic users typically have a higher NPV, a higher conversion rate, a lower churn, and more satisfied than customers acquired through marketing spend. LTV heavy companies are in denial about this point. In fact, many of them will argue until they are blue in the face that the customer dynamics are the same while this is rarely the case. A customer that “chooses” your firm’s services will be much more staisfied than one that is persuaded to buy your product through spend. Find any high-marketing spend consumer subscription company, and I will show you a company with numerous complaints at the Better Business Bureau. These are companies that make it almost impossible to terminate your subscription. When you are scheming on how to trap the customer from finding the exit you are not building a long-term brand.
  8. The Money Could Go to the Customer.Think about this. If you are a company that spends millions and millions of dollars on marketing, wouldn’t you be better off handing that money to the customer versus handing it to a third-party who has nothing to do with the future life-time value of the customer? Providing a better value-proposition to the customer is much more likely to endure goodwill than spending on marketing. A heavy marketing spend necessitates a higher margin (to cover the spend), and therefore a higher end user price to the customer! So the customer is negatively impacted by the presence or “need” of the marketing program. Plus, a margin umbrella now exists for competition that chooses to undercut your margin model with a more efficient customer acquisition strategy (such as giving the customer the money).“More and more money will go into making a great customer experience, and less will go into shouting about the service. Word of mouth is becoming more powerful. If you offer a great service, people find out.” – Jeff Bezos
  9. LTV Obsession Creates Blinders. Many companies that obsess over LTV, become overwhelmed by LTV. In essence, the formula becomes a blinder that restricts creativity and open-mindedness. Some of the most efficient forms of marketing are viral, social, and effective PR (public relations). Most companies that obsess about LTV are less skilled at these more leveraged techniques. Ironically, it’s the scrappy and capital starved startup with absolutely no marketing budget that typically finds a clever way to scale growth organically.  I love this historic slide from Skype comparing their SAC with that of Vonage, an iconic disciple of LTV analysis.

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10. Tomorrow Never Arrives.  The Utopian destination imagined by the LTV formula is a mirage. It almost never works out as planned in the long run. Either growth begins to slow, or you run out of capital to continue to fund losses, or Wall Street cries uncle and asks to see profitability. When this happens the frailty of the model begins to appear. SAC is a little higher than expected. You met your growth target, but the projected loss was bigger than expected. Wall Street is hounding you for churn numbers, but you are reluctant to give them out. The lack of transparency then leads to cynicism, and everyone assumes the worse. It turns out that the excessive marketing spend was also propping up repeat purchase, and pulling back to achieve profitability is increasing churn. Moreover, a negative PR cycle has ensued as a result of your stock decline, and the press’ new doubts about your model. This also impacts results, and customer perception of your brand. The bottom line is that “one day we can stop spending and be remarkably profitable” rarely comes to fruition.

It is not impossible to create permanent equity value with the LTV approach, but it’s a dangerous game of timing – you don’t want to be the peak investor. Let’s say a new business starts with an early market capitalization of A (see graph below). Through aggressive marketing techniques, and aggressive fund raising, the company is able to achieve amazing revenue growth (and corresponding losses), but nonetheless creates a rather sizable organization. At this point, the company is value at point B. Eventually, however, gravity ensues and the constraints outlined herein raise their head, resulting in a collapse to point C.  For early founders and investors at point A, they may do OK (as long as C>A), but it will be accomplished on the backs of later stage investors that helped fund the unsustainable push to point B. This is the story of many a telecom and cable provider expansion history, as well as a few recent Internet companies.

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This should not be misconstrued as a eulogy for the LTV formula. It has a very important place in business as a way to contrast and compare alternative marketing programs and channels. It is a tactical marketing tool that requires candor and thoroughness in its implementation. The fundamental reason that it is so amazingly dangerous and seductive is its simplicity and certainty. Generic marketing is conceptual. LTV marketing is specific. Building a plan to grow to a million users organically is an order of magnitude more difficult than doing it with the aid of the LTV formula. There is comfort in its determinism, and it is simply easier to do.

Some people wield the LTV model as if they were Yoda with a light saber; “Look at this amazing weapon I know how to use!” Unfortunately, it is not that amazing, it’s not that unique to understand, and it is not a weapon, it’s a tool. Companies need a sustainable competitive advantage that is independent of their variable marketing campaigns. You can’t win a fight with a measuring tape.

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Social-Mobile-LOCAL: “Local” Will Be The Biggest of the Three

Posted on June 25, 2012. Filed under: android, Internet, iphone, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , , |

“Well I was born in a small town
And I live in a small town
Prob’ly die in a small town
Oh, those small – communities”
— Small Town, John Mellencamp

While “Social-Mobile-Local” is certainly an overused buzz phrase, most of the attention has been placed on the “social” and “mobile” parts of the phrase. In social, the spectacular rise of Facebook and Twitter is clearly a disruptive and critical trend. In mobile, the adoption of the smartphone (led by Apple’s iPhone and now catapulted forward by Android) is also a fundamentally important platform transition. Much less attention has been paid to the third concept, “local,” which is ironic since it may be a much larger real business opportunity than either social media or Smartphone application revenue. Over the next five years, this massive opportunity will come into focus as local businesses embrace the Internet and adopt new interactive technologies that increasingly automate the connections between their customers and themselves.

A Huge Opportunity

The attached slide will look familiar to readers in Silicon Valley. It appears to be a disruptive, up-and-to-the-right graph that we normally associate with break-out technology companies. This slide, however, maps the rise of the Yellow Pages industry in North America from 1920 to 2007. As you can see, the Yellow Pages business saw incredible revenue growth as the phone became the key point of connectivity for interaction with local business. At its peak in 2007, the North American Yellow Pages business topped out somewhere between $14-16 billion, depending on the source.

Total local advertising and promotion is much larger than just the Yellow Pages. A separate analysis done by Advertising Age, suggests that in 2007, local U.S. businesses spent around $123 billion annually on local media. However, starting in 2008, this market began to materially erode. Why? Newspapers, magazines, local radio, and Yellow Pages represent about 80% of this spend, and the rise of the Internet is unquestionably undermining the  core structure of these industries. Since 2007, Yellow Pages revenues have fallen in half in five years, after taking 87 years to reach their peak. Many newspapers have closed, and others teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. This is not at all shocking. We  know that consumers are using these products less frequently every day. The Yellow Pages business itself suffers from a terminal disease.

If you think back to five years ago, the small business owner was clearly an Internet skeptic. People would say things like “you should have a web site,” but for most local business owners — like a pet-shop or a locksmith — this didn’t mean anything. They had a phone, it was listed in the Yellow Pages – and people could find them. And if the potential consumer went online, the phone number could be found there as well. No problem. For those that did put up a web site, it was, in many cases, a non-event. Some customers might find it, but only the ones that were already looking for them. What’s the big deal?

An Online Awakening

Two things then happened. The first is the critical success of Yelp. Local merchants were suddenly profiled in an environment where the consumer, not the business owner, controlled the copy and the narrative. At first, it was easy to disregard this thing called Yelp as a passing fad. But the voices  got louder and louder – both the happy and the unhappy ones. Accountability and transparency had arrived at the local level. One has to suspect that Facebook’s pervasiveness played a roll in awakening the small business owner too.  By 2011, Facebook had reached 71% penetration of all 221mm U.S. Internet users. Regardless of  industry, when the small business owner now went home, his or her family was constantly on the Internet – playing games, doing research, connecting with friends. The Internet’s pervasiveness could no longer be denied.

Today, the small business owner’s attitude has shifted from denial to anxiety, and, as a result, these local business owners are rushing to the Internet in droves. In Benchmark’s own portfolio, we have eight companies (OpenTable, Uber, Zillow, Yelp, DemandForce, GrubHub, 1stdibs, and Peixe Urbano, *) that generate the majority of their revenue directly from local businesses. Based on estimates, these companies will represent approximately $735mm in revenue in calendar year 2012. Four of these companies have already seen a liquidity event (OpenTable, Zillow, and Yelp have had successful IPOs, and DemandForce was recently purchased by Intuit for $425 million). As small business owners embrace the Internet, the local Internet is firing on all cylinders. Not bad for a customer segment that was once considered a “do not enter” zone for venture capitalists.

The Smartphone as a Catalyst

If the decay of the Yellow Pages was a catalyst for the local Internet, then the rise of the smartphone is an accelerant. Smartphone adoption is staggering. Today, there are over 1 billion smartphone users worldwide, and in the U.S., smartphone penetration recently passed 50%. Google has announced that Android is activating over 850K new users a day. These mobile devices are frequently the preferred device (vs. a personal computer) when a consumer looks to interact with local businesses. For the eight companies mentioned above, mobile usage already represents between 25-50% of overall customer usage depending on time of day and day of week. And mobile usage looks destined to increase from here: DigitalBuzz predicts that mobile Internet users will pass desktop Internet users within the next 3 years.

The rise of the Smartphone as a new platform is a huge benefit for entrepreneurs. Simply put, large incumbents are typically slow to make shifts to new platforms. This is either because they are overly focused on their current strength, or simply too large and bureaucratic to move quickly. Often, it is a combination of both. Startups on the other hand are eager to find a point of leverage or advantage, and rush to new platforms. New platforms typically have  “hooks” that enable features that never existed on the previous platform, further differentiating the startups offerings. A great example on the Smartphone is using GPS for one button local search. New platforms also require new distribution techniques, and in such a “jump ball” scenario the incumbent’s advantage evaporates. One could argue the incumbents are even at a disadvantage as they are less likely to have the cutting edge technical employees who understand the new platforms.

Changing the Game: Going Deep

But there is an even greater limitation on the power of incumbents than their discomfort with new platforms. As the market moves away from Yellow Pages-like listings and directories as a proxy for advertising, many young companies, taking a page out of the playbook of data-driven software-as-a-service companies, have created deep vertical integration within their spaces in order to drive traffic and enable services. By organizing small business owners, supplementary service providers, and customers on a single canonical set of data, these companies are not only providing new ways for customers to discover local businesses: they are creating new ways for local businesses to interact with customers. They are moving from “listing” services to “automation” services, and they are stitching these Internet services deep into the nervous system of the target industry.

For example, a company like OpenTable provides, on a stand-alone basis, a premises based computer that is an extremely effective tool for restaurants to manage their tables — a digital version of the reservation book on the maitre d’s desk. By connecting that same data on the Internet, and aggregating that data from other restaurants, you have OpenTable’s incredible online reservation system. Along that same data spine, customers can add reviews, limousine services and florists can enhance the dining experience, and a location-aware Smartphone app can tell you what restaurant within walking distance of where you are has a table available right now. The “offering” is the complete network, not just one specific piece, and the pieces alone are less compelling.

Going “deep” like this is a significant challenge for larger incumbents. The playbook requires a deep understanding of the industry, access to all the key content and its structure, a targeted and experienced sales structure, and a willingness to invest in a market that may seem “niche” to the broader service provider. You have to be willing to get your hands dirty. These large companies favor a horizontal, one-size-fits-all approach, offering a widget that all local companies would potentially use (such as virtual loyalty cards). But these lightweight offerings from the incumbents will fall well short of the “automation” features and functionality enabled by the innovators digging deeper into the vertical.

We’ve already seen a couple of recent examples of this with Google. In mortgages, Google launched a product but ultimately retreated, citing prioritization concerns and “taking a hard look at products that haven’t been as successful as we had hoped.” A seemingly simple category like mortgages proved difficult to nail within the overall Google strategic framework. Likewise, in order to gain a foothold in travel — a space where deep verticals thrived for many years —Google ultimately realized they had to pay $700mm for ITA Software in order to acquire the vertical tools they needed to be successful.

The Real Winner: The Customer

If you look closely at many of the leading companies developing these deep verticals, like Zillow or OpenTable or Uber or AirBnB, they are providing far more than just advertising opportunities for local businesses. These companies are using new technologies like mobility and location to improve communication, interaction and overall customer experience.

The amazing thing about these new local Internet companies is how much value the consumer gets from this data-driven, vertically-integrated experience. Watching your Uber driver approaching your location on GPS forever alters your experience of taxis and limos, while at the same time providing total transparency up and down the value chain, from dispatcher to driver to fleet manager.

But the really exciting part is that we are still really early in this process of transformation away from listing/directory advertising to a local Internet.  By way of comparison, in the fourth quarter of 2011, Southwest Airlines reported that 86% of its revenue was booked online.  By comparison, only 12% of US restaurant reservations are booked online. Only 15% of dentists are connected to customers through services like DemandForce.  Only 3% of takeout orders are processed through online offerings like GrubHub. And less than 1% of realtors are premier agents on Zillow.

We all know intuitively where those numbers are headed in the future.

*Benchmark Capital is also super excited about its investment in Nextdoor, the leading social network for local neighborhoods and communities. Join 3,000 other local communities who have revolutionized how neighbors interact online. Check it out at www.nextdoor.com.

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Intuit to Acquire Demandforce for $424MM

Posted on April 27, 2012. Filed under: advertising, Internet, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , |

This morning, Intuit announced its agreement to acquire one of Benchmark’s portfolio companies, Demandforce, for $424mm. As with Instagram, Benchmark Capital is the largest institutional investor in Demandforce. Unlike Instagram, which is a consumer application and is extremely well known, Demandforce focuses on local professional businesses and has chosen to keep an intentionally low profile – a strategy that has served them well.

Great entrepreneurs often blaze their own trails, and the founder and CEO of Demandforce, Rick Berry, is no different. In a day and age of social media, where many companies project a persona much larger than reality, Demandforce chose instead to focus on its customers and its products. We never even announced Benchmark’s funding of the company, which I believe is unprecedented. The Demandforce team always felt that the attention should be focused on the customer rather than the company.

Demandforce’s customer mission has always been the same – to help small businesses thrive in an evolving and increasingly complex connected world. Today, they are the leading provider of interactive “front office” SAAS services to thousands and thousands of professional small business owners. The Demandforce product is a powerful web-based application that seamlessly integrates with existing workflow systems, works automatically, and delivers guaranteed results. Through this, Demandforce provides local businesses – like salons, auto shops, chiropractors, dentists, and veterinarians – with affordable and easy access to the tools and platforms that large enterprises use to communicate with customers, build a strong online reputation and leverage network marketing. It you have ever received an automated communication from your dentist, it was likely sent through Demandforce.

Demandforce’s success puts it at the forefront of the burgeoning “Local Internet” wave. The combination of Internet pervasiveness and smartphone penetration has led to a complete reconfiguration with regard to how local businesses interact with their customers. These local businesses have traditionally spent over $125B/year on traditional media, and this is only in the U.S. But the channels they have historically used, such as the newspaper and the yellow pages, are increasingly compromised. These business owners know they need new solutions, and these dollars will be reallocated to these exciting new platforms. Benchmark believes this “Local Internet” wave is many times larger than the “social” and “mobile” themes with which it is often contrasted. In addition to DemandForce, Benchmark is fortunate to have backed such “Local Internet” market leaders as OpenTable (OPEN), Zillow (Z), Yelp (YELP), Peixe Urbano, GrubHub, Uber, and Nextdoor.

It has been an honor and a pleasure to work with Rick Berry, Patrick Barry, Hoang Vuong, Mark Hale, Sam Osman and Annie Tsai at Demandforce. This is truly one of the best teams ever assembled. It was also a pleasure to work with Steve Kostyshen as well as Mike Maples of Floodgate and Peter Ziebelman of Palo Alto Venture Partners, all of whom preceded us in their investment, and all of whom are passionate fans of the company.

It is certainly thrilling to see a team of entrepreneurs reach a significant milestone such as this.  That said, it is equally bittersweet as it means we will no longer be working directly with them on this incredibly compelling mission. Our loss is unquestionably Brad Smith and Intuit’s gain. Combining the leading “front office” small business SAAS vendor with the iconic Silicon Valley small business company is an incredibly compelling combination.

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My Life With Bing

Posted on April 19, 2012. Filed under: search, Uncategorized | Tags: , |

For the past two months, I changed the default search engine on my browser (ironically Chrome) from Google to Bing. I have used Bing almost exclusively for this period, and have two quick conclusions.

1) With regards to core search, the Bing results were perfectly fine. I never struggled to find anything. I never forced myself to redo the search on Google. So I would say Bing is on-par in terms of traditional, core search quality.

2) Where I did struggle was with the non-core search searches (i.e. maps, images, videos, news). Microsoft and Google use slightly different UIs on these non-core searches, and I had no idea how trained I was on the Google UI. Trying to learn the Bing tools and features was quite frustrating, and on those searches – I kept returning to Google. Plus, I didn’t realize how often I transition from one type of search to another (from core to maps, or core to news). This was another point of frustration. Keep in mind, I did not have a problem with Bing’s non-core results, just rather the navigational elements.

At the end of the day, for me, my user “lock-in” is associated not with the quality of Google results, but rather with the understanding of the UI features and levers.  More like a traditional software application.

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Why Youth Has an Advantage in Innovation & Why You Want To Be a Learn-It-All

Posted on March 26, 2012. Filed under: Internet, social networking, Uncategorized, Venture Capital | Tags: , , , |

[Follow Me on Twitter]

A few relevant scenes from the recent blockbuster Moneyball:

Peter Brand: Billy, Pena is an All Star. Okay? And if you dump him and this Hatteberg thing doesn’t work out the way that we want it to, you know, this is…this is the kind of decision that gets you fired. It is!
Billy Beane: Yes, you’re right. I may lose my job, in which case I’m a forty four year old guy with a high school diploma and a daughter I’d like to be able to send to college. You’re twenty five years old with a degree from Yale and a pretty impressive apprenticeship. I don’t think we’re asking the right question. I think the question we should be asking is, do you believe in this thing or not?
Peter Brand: I do.
Billy Beane: It’s a problem you think we need to explain ourselves. Don’t. To anyone.
Peter Brand: Okay.

———————————

Grady Fuson: No. Baseball isn’t just numbers, it’s not science. If it was then anybody could do what we’re doing, but they can’t because they don’t know what we know. They don’t have our experience and they don’t have our intuition.
Billy Beane: Okay.
Grady Fuson: Billy, you got a kid in there that’s got a degree in Economics from Yale. You got a scout here with twenty nine years of baseball experience. You’re listening to the wrong one. Now there are intangibles that only baseball people understand. You’re discounting what scouts have done for a hundred and fifty years, even yourself!

These two scenes from Moneyball illustrate something that may be essential to modern business: the incredible value of youth and innovative thinking relative to traditional experience. It turns out that the Moneyball character Peter Brand’s real name is not Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), but rather Paul DePodesta. And he didn’t go to Yale, but instead Harvard. He was indeed young – twenty-seven when he went to work for Billy Beane – and he did have an actual degree in Economics. What’s more, as you can see in the interaction above, Billy valued Paul’s (Peter Brand’s) opinions and decisions – despite the fact that he was a complete novice with respect to baseball operations.

A month or two ago, I had the unique opportunity to share the stage with Billy Beane at a management offsite for one of the leading companies in the Fortune 500. We were both fielding questions about innovation, and what one can do to keep their organization innovative. I talked about how many of the partners that have joined Benchmark Capital have been extremely young when they joined, including our most recent partner Matt Cohler who joined us at the age of 31. At Benchmark, we believe that young partners have many compelling differentiators. First, they will ideally have strong connections and compatibility with young entrepreneurs, who are frequently the founders of the largest breakout companies. They are also likely to be frequent users of the latest and greatest technologies (all the more important with today’s consumer Internet market). Like the “Moneyball” situation described herein, young VCs are open to new ways of doing things. This form of “rule-breaking,” or intentionally ignoring yesterday’s doctrine, may in fact be a requirement for successful venture capital investing.

When I mentioned this intentional bias towards youth, Billy Beane abruptly concurred. He noted that injecting youth into the A’s organization is also a key philosophy of his. Paul DePodesta may have been the first young gun that Billy hired, but he was far from the last. Billy continues to recruit young, bright, talented people right out of college to help shake up the closed-minded thinking that can develop with an “experience only” staff. Also noted was the fact that if a certain “experience” is shared by all teams in the league, then it is no longer a strategic weapon. You can only win with a unique advantage.

The impact of youth on the technology scene is undeniable. The included table lists the founding age of some of the most prominent founders of our time. The facts are humbling and intimidating, especially for someone who is no longer in their twenties or early thirties. Can someone in their forties be innovative? Or, do the same things that produce “experience” constrain you from the creativity and perspective needed to innovate?

Lets look at some of the specific advantages of youth. First, as mentioned before, without the blinders of past experience, you don’t know what not to try, and therefore, you are willing to attempt things that experienced executives will not consider. Second, you are quick to leverage new technologies and tools way before the incumbent will see an opportunity or a need to pay attention. For me this may be the bigger issue. The rate of change on the Internet is extremely high. If the weapon du jour is constantly changing, being nimble and open-minded far outweighs being experienced. Blink and you are behind. Youth is a competitive weapon.

The point Billy raised regarding the fleeting value of experience is also important to consider. As the world becomes more and more aware of a trick or a skill, the value of that experience begins to decay. If word travels fast, the value of the skill diminishes quickly. Best practice becomes table stakes to stay-afloat, but not to get ahead. We see examples of this every day with Facebook application user acquisition techniques. Companies find a seam or arbitrage that creates a small window of opportunity in the market, but quickly others mimic the same technique and the advantage proves fleeting.

Back before the Yahoo BOD hired Carol Bartz, there was much speculation about the important traits for Yahoo’s next CEO. Most of the analysis honed in on two key traits for the company’s next leader – the ability to lead and the ability to innovate. I remember trying to think about leaders that I thought would have a chance at having a measurable impact. On one hand, you could put a very young innovative executive into the role, but it is hard to imagine handing a $15B public company over to someone remarkably inexperienced. The other side of the coin is equally difficult – thinking of a seasoned executive who has the ability to dramatically innovate Yahoo’s products and business model.

There were only a handful of people (as few as three) that I could think of at the time that fit this second profile. Thinking back now, they all shared the following characteristic: despite being experienced CEOs, these individuals all “thought young” i.e. they were open-minded and curious. And they did not believe that experience gave them all the answers. These type of executives love diving head-first into the latest and greatest technologies as soon as they become available.

If you want to stay “young” and innovative, you have no choice but to immerse yourself in the emerging tools of the current and next generation. You MUST stay current, as it is illusionary to imagine being innovative without being current. Also realize that the generational shifts are much shorter than they were in the past. If you were an innovative Internet company five short years ago, you might have learned about SEM and SEO. Most of the newly disruptive companies are no longer using these tools as paths to success – they have moved on to social/viral techniques. The game keeps changing, and if you are not “all-in” in terms of learning what’s new, than you may be falling rapidly behind.

Consider these questions:

  1. When a new device or operating system comes out do you rush out to get it as soon as possible – just because you want to play with the new features? Or do you wait for the dust to settle so that you don’t make a mistaken purchase. Or because you don’t want to waste your time.
  2. Do you use LinkedIn for all of your recruiting, or do you mistakenly think that LinkedIn is only for job seekers? How many connections do you have? Is your profile up to date? (When Yahoo announced Carol Bartz as CEO, I did a quick search on LinkedIn.  She was not a registered user.)
  3. When you heard that Zynga’s Farmville had over 80MM monthly users, did you immediately launch the game to see what it was all about, or do you make comments about how mindless it is to play such a game? Have you ever launched a single Facebook game?
  4. Do you have an Android phone or do you still use a Blackberry because your Chief Security Officer says you have to? I know many “innovators” who carry an iPhone and an Android, simply because they know these are the smartphones that customers use. And they want exposure to both platforms – at a tactile level.
  5. Do you use the internal camera app on your iPhone because it’s easy, or have you downloaded Instgram to find out why 27mm other people use that instead?
  6. Do you leverage Twitter to improve your influence and position in your industry or is it more comfortable for you to declare, “why would I tweet?,” before you even fully understand the product or why people in similar roles are leveraging the medium? Do you follow the industry leaders in your field on Twitter? Do you follow your competitors and customers? Do you track your company’s products and reputation?
  7. How many apps are on your smart phone? Do you have well over 50, or even 100, because you are routinely downloading each and every app from each peer and competitor you can to see how others are exploiting the environment? Do you know how WhatsApp, Voxer, and Path leveraged the iphone contact list for viral distribution?
  8. Do you know what Github is and why most startups rely on it as the key center of their engineering effort?
  9. Have you ever mounted an AWS server at Amazon? Do you know how AWS pricing works?
  10. Does it make sense to you to use HTML5 as your mobile solution so that you don’t have to code for multiple platforms? Does it bother you that none of the leading smartphone app vendors take this approach?
  11. When you are on the road on business, do you let your assistant book the same old car service, or do you tell them, “I want to use Uber just to see how it works?”
  12. When Facebook launched the new timeline feature did you immediately build one to see what the company was up to, or did you dismiss this as something you shouldn’t waste your time on?
  13. Have you been to Glassdoor.com to see what employees are saying about your company? Or have you rationalized why it’s not important, the way the way the old-school small business owner formerly dismissed his/her Yelp review.

The really great news is that being a “learn-it-all” has never been easier. With the Internet, high-speed broadband, SAAS, Cloud-services, 4G, and smart-phones, you can learn about new things, 24 hours a day, no matter where you are or what you do. All you need is the internal drive and insatiable curiosity to understand why the world is evolving the way it is. It is all out there for you to touch and feel. None of it is hidden.

There are in fact many “over 30” executives who can go toe-to-toe with these young entrepreneurs, precisely because they keep themselves youthful by leaning-in and understanding the constantly evolving frontier. My favorite “youthful” CEOs are people like Marc Benioff and Michael Dell, who frequently can be found signing up for brand new social networking tools and applications. Reed Hastings has more than once answered Netflix questions directly in Quora.  Jason Kilar frequently communicates directly with his customers through Hulu’s blog. Rich Barton, the co-founder of Expedia and Zillow is one of those people carrying both an Iphone and an Android, and is constant learning mode. I would also include Mark Cuban, whose curiosity is voracious. The other NBA owners never saw him coming. And lastly, there is Jeff Bezos, who seems to live beyond the edge, imagining the future as it unfolds. Watch the launch of Kindle Fire in NYC, and you will have no doubt that Jeff plays with these products directly and frequently.

Our last table highlights the stats from the Twitter account of some of these “youthful,” learn-it-all executives (sans Mr. Bezos – we all wish he tweeted). If you don’t find this list interesting, think about the thousands and thousands of executives out there who are nowhere to be found with respect to social media. They take the easy way out, likely blaming their legal department. They intentionally choose not to learn and not to be innovative. And they refuse to indoctrinate themselves to the very tools that the disrupters will use to attack their incumbency. That may in fact be the most dangerous path of all.

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Why Dropbox Is A Major Disruption

Posted on February 23, 2012. Filed under: android, Apple, Internet, iphone, Mobile, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , , |

Back in October, Techcrunch announced that Dropbox had raised $250mm at a seemingly absurd valuation. Many firms, including my firm Benchmark Capital, participated. When this happened, many people asked us why this was a special company that would cause us to break our standard investment paradigm. They didn’t quite understand why this was a company that deserved once-in-a-generation special attention.

The first answer to this question is rather straightforward, but not earth shattering. Drew Houston and his team had taken a hard problem — file synchronization — and made it brain dead simple. Anyone that had used previous file synchronization programs, including Apple’s own iDisk, constantly encountered state problems. Modifications in one location would get out of synch with those in another, ruining the  entire premise of seamless synchronization. It wasn’t that these other companies did not understand the problem, it was just that they could not execute on the solution. The Dropbox team solved this, which was a critical innovation.

Although this was critical, nailing technical synchronization would not necessarily warrant outsized valuations. In order to be worth $40B one day (which is 10X the $4B reported round, the objective return of a VC investment), the company would need to hold a place in the ecosystem that is far more strategic than that of a simple high-tech problem solver. So what is it Dropbox does that is so special?

This evening, TechCrunch reported that Dropbox would automatically synch your Android photos. Once again, someone could suggest “so what, how hard is it to do that?, and why is that worth billions?”

Here is why. Once you begin using Dropbox, you become more and more indifferent to the hardware you are using, as well as the operating system on that device. Dropbox commoditizes your devices and their OS, by being your “state” system in the sky. Storing credentials and configurations of devices, and even applications are natural next steps for this company. And the further they take it, the less dependent any user becomes of the physical machine (HW and SW) that is accessing that data (and state). Imagine the number of companies, as well as the previous paradigms, this threatens.

That is a major, major deal. And it comes at a time where there are many competing platforms on both desktop and mobile. This “unsure” market backdrop ensures the need for a cross-platform solution and plays right into Dropbox’s hand. You can lose your desktop computer, you can lose your smartphone. It doesn’t matter, because all you really care about is in the Dropbox cloud.

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Why Facebook Clearly Belongs in the 10X Revenue Club

Posted on February 1, 2012. Filed under: Facebook, Internet, IPO, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , |

Attached are my thoughts on the Facebook S-1 along with some quick stabs at valuation.  Brief disclosure, Benchmark Capital has a minority position in Facebook as a result of the acquisition of FriendFeed, a company that was incubated in our offices.

I thought it would be useful to look at Facebook using the scorecard from our May 24 blog post, “All Revenue is Not Created Equal, the Keys to the 10X Revenue Club.” For those that want to save time, the key point of this piece is that there is a broad disparity of Price/Revenue multiples for global Internet stocks, and that only a very small fraction of these companies achieve a multiple over 10X. We also created a list of 10 factors that public investors consider when trying to qualify if a company is deserved of such a prestigious and lofty valuation.

On a roll, these factors are:

1. Sustainable Competitive Advantage – how big is the competitive Moat?
2. Presence of Network Effects – does the model tip to a single vendor?
3. Visibility/Predictability – is the revenue consistent
4. Customer Lock-in / High Switching Costs – is it expensive to leave?
5. Gross margin levels – How much leverage exists is the business?
6. Marginal Profitability Calculation – is the leverage still expanding?
7. Customer Concentration – are there key dependencies?
8. Major Partner Dependencies – are there key dependencies here as well?
9. Organic Demand vs. Marketing Spend – is customer acquisition expensive?
10. Growth – how big will the future be?

So how does Facebook score on these metrics? As you would expect, pretty well.

Metric: Comments: Grade:
Sustainable Competitive Advantage It would be extremely hard to launch a direct-on competitor to Facebook.  Look at what has happened to Friendster, MySpace, Bebo, and is happening to Orkut in Brazil.  Google+ as a FB competitor is a tough slog. A+
Presence of Network Effects These are about as strong as you could design. All current non-US Facebook users have immediate connections if they log-in. A+
Visibility/Predictability This is fairly strong as well, simply because there is no lumpiness.  There is a small dependency on Zynga that could cause variability. Also, a premium product would offer more consistency than pure ads.  That said, this is not an issue. A
Customer Lock-In / Switching Costs Leaving Facebook is possible, but finding an alternative with all your friends on it is not really possible.  Obviously, the inclusion of Timeline works to increase this even more by creating a permanent dependence on past content. Also, Facebook’s DAU number is staggering. Over half of all users check-in daily. That is uber lock-in. A+
Gross Margin Levels Gross margin has hovered between 75-80% for the last several quarters.  This is a fantastic overall gross margin. It would be great to think they have more leverage here, but as the largest Internet site in the world, this probably represents peak margins. A
Marginal Profitability Calculation On this one Facebook doesn’t score so well.  Peak profitability (on a margin % basis) was in Q4 of 2010, and since then spending has kept pace with revenue growth. It is likley that the team would argue they are “investing for the long-term,” but if the long term is forever, than EPS growth is permanently tied to revenue growth. B-
Customer Concentration Zynga is 12% of revenues, but this is fairly low and they are the only company over 10%. Plus, if Zynga stopped competing for these ad purchases, there are many, many Zynga look-alikes that would rush to fill that void. So even if they left tomorrow (which they won’t) the number would not go away completely. A
Partner Dependency Facebook has grown to be the largest site in the world with the help of no one. No partners. No dependency. A+
Organic Demand All of Facebook’s customers are organic. This is as good as it gets.  The pure stuff. A+
Growth Facebook grew the top line 88% in 2011. That’s quite amazing. Q4 of 2011, however, was only 55%.  People will definitely be watching this number in Q1. If growth rate hurts the company, then it’s a direct result of waiting too long to go public – past peak growth. B

The bottom line is that these scores are fantastic. Facebook is a shoe-in for the 10X+ revenue club. Perhaps the only question is which years’ revenue you consider. If the company grows 50-60% in 2012, you end up with roughly $5.5-6B in revenue. With all the hype, assume a 12x multiple on the $6, and you end up right at $72B. You can double-check this with earnings. As operating margin is stable, 60% growth would result in $1.6B in after-tax earnings. At $72B, this is a 45 PE ratio for a company growing at 60%. At a 60 PE, you would have a $96B market capitalization. The bottom line is that the banker range looks right to me. Of course, overt and ecstatic demand for the hottest IPO of the past 10 years could easily lead to much higher speculative valuations. But it’s hard to argue that the $70-100B range is wrong. Feels quite right to me.

Here are a few other interesting things from the S-1:

  1. Tax Rate. Warren Buffet’s secretary would be happy. Facebook’s tax rate is already north of 40%. Other multi-national companies typically have found a way to reduce this. Facebook is paying full-boat.
  2. Model appears set. With gross margin relatively fixed, and peak operating margins over 5 quarter ago, investors should get comfortable that bottom-line growth is limited by top line growth. Management could change their attitude later, but experience suggests that founders like Zuckenburg want to invest for the long term. As a result, one shouldn’t expect these super healthy margins to go any higher.
  3. Sales > R&D. It is somewhat surprising that sales expense is greater than R&D expense. The ad units clearly are not self-serve. Interestingly, this ratio is very similar for Google.
  4. Seasonality. The company has more seasonality than I would have expected (geared towards Q4). The prospectus says this is tied to traditional advertising seasonality.
  5. Facebook’s unique RSU program. In an effort to avoid the restrictions of 409A, Facebook long ago created an RSU structure whose shares vest on a liquidity event.  As a result, a large amount of stock (close to $1B in value) will all “vest” on the IPO. This will result in an enormous one-time, non-cash charge. What I still can’t figure out, is how this will effect the overall share count. If you know let me know, and I will append the post. If auditors and the SEC are happy with this RSU structure, I would expect to see other startups adopt it, as it avoids the restrictions of 409A.
  6. Cash. Over $3.9B in cash already. And they will raise $5B more. That’s a lot of cash.

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Thinking About Diets and Other Complex Matters

Posted on January 5, 2012. Filed under: Complexity, Diet, Uncategorized | Tags: , |

[Follow Me on Twitter]

Each January, being the season of New Year’s resolutions, it is common to find people you know discussing the pros and cons of various dietary pursuits. Individuals across the globe are eager to turn over a new leaf, get on a new bandwagon, make a new start. Yet, even with a strong will, its not at all obvious what the right recipe should be. Pick almost any diet, and you will find several experts and PHDs praising it, and an equal number panning it. You would think that with all our technology and understanding of the human body, there would be more consistency in our approach. I saw a tweet yesterday that said, “Diet guides are the political blogs of personal improvement.” This feels right. But why do discussions about something that is supposed to be scientific, feel like religious or political arguments?

I happend to “consume” three interesting pieces of content this past year on the subject of nutrition (two of these come via my partner @peterfenton). For reasons which I will disclose later, I recommend you “consume” each of them, regardless of whether you have a strong pro or con bias after hearing the descriptions.

  1. Most recently I just finished Gary Taubes new book, Why We Get Fat. For those in the know, this book is a toned down, more reader friendly, less technical version of Taubes 2008 New York Times best seller, Good Calories, Bad Calories. Taubes, a successful science journalist and researcher, obliterates the past 30-40 years of  medical rhetoric when it comes to diet and nutrition. He not only explains the physiology behind why the perspectives of the past are misguided, but also highlights the rather obvious point that “it ain’t working.”  Obesity rates are exploding. If we knew what to do, wouldn’t that be contained?
  2. The second  piece of content is a video lecture titled Sugar: The Bitter Truth, by Robert H. Lustig, a MD and professor at UCSF. Most 89 minute professorial lectures in medicine fall way short of two million views on YouTube, but Robert’s lecture is nearly at that milestone. Lustig pulls no punches in pointing directly at sugar (specifically high fructose corn syrup – HFCS) as the clear cause of the obesity epidemic we now face — not red meat, not fat, not the lack of a balanced diet, and not too little exercise. Moreover, he notes that food processors increasingly inject HFCS into a large majority of the packaged foods we feed ourselves and our children. This lecture is very compelling. As an added bonus, here is a lengthy article of Taubes reviewing Lustig: Is Sugar Toxic?
  3. Lastly, a briefer entry. This past July, Jane Brody of the New York Times, penned Counting Calories? Your Weight Loss Plan May Be Outdated. This article is a summary of a detailed 20-year research effort from five experts at Harvard that looked into the specific diets of 120,000 individuals. The main point of Brody’s title is that, based on these results, not all calories are created equal. In fact, this study found that potato chips, french fries, and sweetened beverages have a high correlation with weight gain, whereas other foods actually had correlation with weight loss. If you want to see the full study it can be found here: Changes in Diet and Lifestyle and Long-Term Weight Gain in Women and Men.
These three pieces of content had a few common themes that will likely sound “heretic” to many readers.
  1. The real enemy are sugars and carbohydrates. Taubes and Lustig make this explicitly clear. Our body is quite efficient with processing excess fat andprotein that we eat, but excess carbohydrates covert into fat on our bodies. Remember the argument that excess fats cause obesity and heart disease? Complete bullshit according to Taubea. Our physicians, our government, and our schools all rallied behind a 30-year movement to lower fat intake. As Lustig notes, it worked…we did lower fat intake…yet we kept getting fatter.
  2. Carbohydrates and sugars are addictive. Addictive the way cigarettes are. If you become a slave to massive carbohydrate intake, your body will actually crave more carbohydrates. And the bigger you are, the more you will crave. It’s hard to lose weight if you are consuming an addictive food.
  3. The calorie-in, calorie out ideal is a complete farce. How many times have you heard someone say, “all you have to do is burn more calories than you consume.” This notion that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie suggest that our bodies process each of these food types the same. Taubes and Lustig say absolutely not. Moreover, the Harvard project highlights the dangerous impact of potatoes, a seemingly harmless food that is present in every child’s school cafeteria. All food is certainly not created equal.
  4. You can’t exercise your way to thin. Simply put, you cannot burn enough calories to make yourself thin (with the exception of extreme amounts of exercise). However, with the right diet, you can lose weight without even exercising. How often do you hear that from a doctor?

Now despite what you may think, my point is not to convince you that these guys have it right. I don’t actually have a horse in this race. What I find amazing is that very educated and well reasoned experts can come to a conclusion that runs so counter to the conventional wisdom of our entire healthcare profession and our government health agencies. Moreover, despite whether you agree with their conclusion, they make a remarkably cogent arguments. Should it be this easy to prove everyone (i.e. the majority) wrong? And once again, why didn’t we have it right in the first place? And why are people so emotionally driven when it comes to their perspectives on topics such as this? (I am certain people will post comments to this blog post along the lines of “Taubes’ an idiot!”)

The human body is a complex system. Complex systems, such as stock markets, weather patterns, ant colonies, and large governments, all behave in ways that make specific prediction extremely difficult. This is because these systems involve millions of variables that are interconnected in non-linear ways that may be dynamic and dependent on potential initial states that could number in the billions. Such systems, which are well studied, are known for being unpredictable, difficult to understand, and are easy to underestimate. [One of the most influential books I have ever read is Complexity, a 1993 work by Mitchell Waldrop.]

One of the primary issues with complex systems is that people draw misleading conclusions regarding cause and effect of certain variables and how they relate to the overall system. As an example, one might note that 9 times out of 10 when variable X is set to 1, the sun is out, and so they proclaim that variable X causes the sun to come out. But the truth is they have no idea whether the sun drives the variable or the variable drives the sun. Or perhaps an entirely different variable that we are not looking at drives the sun, and all we are witnessing is ten random data points that happen to have 9-1 organization. One doesn’t really know.

But we still assume. And we try. Humans like answers and patterns. The truth is we always have. The Greek and Norse gods were early human attempts at understanding the sky, stars, and oceans. If we don’t have a specific answer we think up the best one we have, and we all glom onto it; it is better than the alternative of admitting to everyone that we don’t have a clue. Then we teach it to everyone else, and they all believe it too. Ironically, the more you come to know something through this passing of memes or ideas, the more argumentative, fanatical, or “religious” you might be. The lack of a fundamental understanding opens the door for a spiritual one. No one has an uber-passionate view on how gravity works. But politics, stock prices, and diets are a different matter. In these complex worlds, people “believe” what they cannot know.

Can we all get it wrong? When it comes to understanding complex systems, we can and we do. If you are looking for one more piece of content to consume, I recommend you watch this lecture from the late Michael Crichton: States of Fear: Science or Politics? Chrichton shows numerous examples from history where the majority misread and misunderstood complex systems. Additionally, he highlights how the mass opinion can lead to action that has well-intended but negative implications on the system. Perhaps it should go without saying, but it is particularly hard to influence a system you don’t fully understand.

By now, you may be wondering “what is my point?” Here it is. When it comes to not fully understood complex systems, it is easy to get things wrong. In fact, its easy for everyone to get them wrong. Don’t fear the new idea or the fresh perspective, and don’t believe something just because everyone else does. But watch out for the preacher with certainty — the ones that are spewing hellfire and brimstone. They are the ones most certainly to be wrong.

[Spencer Rascoff of Zillow pointed out this great New York Times article highlighting how all the smart powers that be completely missed the housing crisis, despite all the signs being there. Another example of everyone (including the experts) getting it wrong.]

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Spencer Rascoff

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You Don’t Have to Tweet to Twitter

Posted on November 15, 2011. Filed under: advertising, Facebook, Internet, IPO, social networking, Twitter, Uncategorized, Venture Capital, Web/Tech | Tags: , , , , |

Frequent comparisons to Facebook leave many confused about the true value of Twitter.

[Follow Me on Twitter]

“In a brand new direction
A change of perception
On a brand new trajection”
UB40

[Disclosure: Benchmark Capital is a major investor in Twitter, and my partner Peter Fenton sits on the Twitter BOD.]

Twitter is having a remarkable year. Active users have soared to over 100 million per month, with daily actives now above 50 million. Tweets per day are over 250 million. Most top actors, athletes, and artists are all active on Twitter. Every news and sports program proudly advertises its Twitter account handle. No one would consider running for public office without a strong Twitter presence. Global news in any region breaks first and spreads fast on Twitter. Even uber-socialist Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has 2.24 million followers (which puts him slightly behind Mandy Moore, but just ahead of Queen Latifah).

So, Twitter’s traffic has been growing in leaps and bounds. It has become an indispensable tool for managing personal and corporate brands. And Twitter, along with its verb form “tweet”, have become words in everyday usage all over the world. Yet despite these impressive strides, Twitter’s upside is far, far greater and its user base will expand by an order of magnitude – as soon as the service can overcome a major perception problem.

Twitter suffers from two key misperceptions that need to be resolved before the business can reach its true potential. The first misperception is that Twitter is simply another social network, like Facebook. People commonly think of Twitter as a variant of Facebook. The press frequently positions the two together as “leaders in social networking.” This pairing erroneously implies that the two services are used for the exact same thing, even though the two platforms are very different. Facebook is a few-to-few communication network designed for sharing information and life events with friends. Twitter, on the other hand, is a one-to-many information broadcast network. The only way magic happens on Facebook is through reciprocity: I friend you and you friend me back – then information flows. But on Twitter, I can get something out of following Shaquile O’Neil who has no social obligation to follow me back.

As its roots are in communication, a key part of the Facebook value proposition is sharing information. Any potential anxiety with regards to Facebook sharing is reduced by the fact that these communications are generally seen only by one’s friends. In fact, users react quite negatively when this information is unknowingly shared more broadly. For the people who view Twitter as a Facebook variant, they immediately assume the platform’s core purpose is for the user to broadcast his or her own thoughts and personal information (like Facebook), but to a much broader public audience. For those with this perception, the notion of potentially exposing their own private thoughts to the broad public Internet is overwhelming and uninteresting.

The second, and more critical, Twitter misperception is that you need to tweet, to have something to say and broadcast, for the service to be meaningful to you. For many non-Twitter users, Twitter is an intimidating proposition. “Why would I tweet?,” and “…but I don’t want to tweet” are two common refrains from the non-adopter that highlight this key misperception. But this completely misses the point as to why Twitter has become such an amazingly powerful Internet destination for 100 million others. For the vast majority of Twitter’s next 900 million users, the core usage modality will have very little to do with “tweeting,” and everything to do with “listening” or “hearing.”

Twitter is an innovative and remarkable information service. While it is amazingly democratic and allows literally anyone to broadcast publicly as a “tweeter,” the core value in today’s Twitter is the amazing flow of curated and customized information that emanates from its crowd-sourced user feeds. Other Internet networks like to keep the user “inside.” Much like Google, Twitter points out to the world. It’s a “discovery engine” and an “information utility” rolled into one. With Twitter, you get news faster, you see updates from your favorite artists, you hear directly from key politicians, and gain insights from influencers in a wide variety of specializations. Just as Facebook is symmetric in terms of its poster-reader relationship, Twitter is highly asymmetric. The majority of the tweets on Twitter are posted by a small sub-set of the users. And the majority of the users get value from “reading” or “listening” to the tweets from these core influencers. Once again, for most users it’s more about what you hear, learn, and find than the fact that you can tweet.

In many ways, Twitter is much more of a competitor to other “discovery tools” and “information sources” than it is to Facebook. Facebook is unquestionably the number one resource for “sharing with the people in your life.” From this perspective, Facebook competes (extremely well) with email, instant messengers, and certainly other symmetric social networks like MySpace. Twitter, on the other hand, competes most directly with other tools that help you find important links, news, and information. It is in this broad, non-friend based crowd-sourcing and speed of discovery where Twitter truly shines. A recent Tweet by famed sci-fi author William Gibson highlights this point. Having become accustomed to the non-linear speed of information flow on Twitter, Gibson grew frustrated watching news of the Osama bin Laden killing on TV: “Network news feels like trying to suck cold tar through a milkshake straw.

Some who understand this point have suggested that Twitter is merely a “Better RSS reader.” While this analogy is directionally more accurate than the Facebook comparison, it greatly underestimates the power and value of Twitter. RSS feeds are simply computerized information “routers” that require complex setup, initialization, and maintenance. Twitter has three breakthroughs that make it dramatically more powerful than simple RSS. First and foremost, your personalized Twitter feed is human-curated by a potential universe of millions of curators. When you “check Twitter” you are looking at the specific articles and links purposefully chosen by people you have chosen to follow. That is powerful leverage. Second, it is easily extensible. Due primarily to the concept of “retweeting,” the simple act of using Twitter exposes you to new and interesting sources to follow. It evolves into a richer and more customized offering over time. You discover new people as well as new information. Lastly, Twitter’s unique handles and follower networks create a strong-form network effect that has high lock-in and high switching costs. Twitter and its top tweeters have a deeply symbiotic relationship.

So what can Twitter do to solve this misperception problem? The first thing they can fix is the new user registration flow, a process that has already begun. Earlier this year, a new user would be encouraged to “tweet” very early in the registration process, basically reinforcing the perception problem. Today’s “first 60-second” Twitter experience is quite different and revolves around choosing the influencers you will follow. You should expect even more evolution in this direction in the future. Next, Twitter must make it crystal clear to the press and prospective user that there is an amazingly powerful value proposition for non-broadcasting users. This will not be easy, as it requires a reprogramming of perception across a broad audience. Not only will this aid in incremental adoption, but it will also help subdue the confusion with respect to Facebook.

Twitter is on an amazing trajectory and will continue to increase in usage and influence.  However, the power of this discovery platform is much more about the tweets themselves, and not simply about every single user having the ability to tweet.

[Follow Me on Twitter]

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Steve’s Jobs Remarkable Value Creation

Posted on October 9, 2011. Filed under: Apple, iphone, Uncategorized | Tags: , |

In addition to inspiring others and building breakthrough new products, he also lit up the biggest scoreboard in business…the company’s market capitalization…(courtesy of Forbes):

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    …focusing on the evolution and economics of high technology business and strategy. By day, I am a venture capitalist at Benchmark Capital.

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