Venture capital didn’t create the bubble

Dave Winer is a smart guy, and when it comes to Web 2.0 he’s been smart a lot longer than I have — but when it comes to investing and the stock market and venture capital, I think he might be a little out of his depth. I wouldn’t tell Dave how to put together an OPML editor, and by the same token I’m not sure anyone should listen to how he wants to “reform” the venture capital business.

Like a good friend, Robert Scoble is being kind when he says Dave’s post contains “great insight.” I would tend to agree with Paul Kedrosky that his proposed solution is more than a little on the wacky side. Even his description leaves me shaking my head. Here’s part of it:

That’s how Netscape and the dotcommers that followed went through the roof of the stock market. People who traded could see the raw power of the Internet and knew, one way or the other, that this was going to change how everything was done, from business to romance, travel, gambling, everything. So the users of the Internet bid the stock of the Internet up. And up. And up. And so on. So what did the middlemen do exactly? They invested in all kinds of idiotic things.

The point of this seems to be that “people who traded” were the ones who knew what to invest in, while the “middlemen” or VCs threw money at idiotic things like pets.com and boo.com, so we should get the middlemen out of the way and let users run things and decide what to invest in. I’m not sure which bubble Dave was watching, but I remember plenty of supposedly smart “investors” who bought stocks like theglobe.com and others all the way up into the stratosphere. Was that the fault of stupid or venal VCs? Hardly. They were just supplying what the market had already shown that it wanted: Internet-based anything, and right now.

As Nick Carr has pointed out, bubbles are born on the demand side, not the supply side. And yes, it’s true that there are problems with much of what goes on in the venture capital business, as Canadian VC Rick Segal and others have described. I’m interested to see what Rick has in mind — but with all due respect, I hope to God that he doesn’t take Dave’s advice on this one.

For more on the same topic, I think Fraser Kelton has some worthwhile points, and as usual Fred Wilson summarizes things well:

I would suggest one rule and only one. Be the entrepreneur’s partner. Help him or her. Be there for them. Support them. Counsel them. Share the risk with them. Have fun with them. Laugh and cry with them. And make boatloads of money with them. It’s a time tested formula and it will work forever.

Meanwhile, Rick Segal has obviously been thinking about all this as well — as he hinted in an earlier post — and does what I think is a great job of distilling what the “new” startup landscape looks like, and asking the question (my paraphrase): “If you don’t need much money, and you don’t need a lot of hardware or software, and the Web gives you lots of points of contact, what do you need VCs for?” Go read his post for the answer.

Update:

Dave Winer doesn’t think much of my comments, not surprisingly. Fair enough. To answer Dave’s questions (since he doesn’t allow comments on his scripting.com blog), I am not a VC, and whatever investing I do is through mutual funds, so my track record is effectively a blank slate. But I have been writing about investing and the stock market for about 15 years now. I wasn’t saying that I’m more experienced than Dave, just that his argument for reform in venture capital is logically flawed.

Anne Zelenka, who posted some comments here, has written an excellent post on her blog that breaks down — from an Econ 101 standpoint — the elements of Web 2.0 that make it different from Web 1.0, and why the venture capital business just keeps getting harder.

Bubble Zen: When is a bubble half-inflated?

Lots of talk in the blogosphere about Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s piece on The New Boom in Wired magazine. In it, Chris says point blank that what we’re all seeing — the multiple VC rounds for startups with virtually no revenue, the $30-million buyouts of del.icio.us, not to mention the $4-billion or so for Skype — isn’t a bubble, it’s a boom. So there.

A boom perhaps, but not (phew!) a bubble. There’s a difference. Bubbles are inflated with hot air and speculation. They end with a wet pop, leaving behind messy splatters. Booms, on the other hand, tend to have strong foundations and gentle conclusions. Bubbles can be good: They spark a huge amount of investment that can make things easier for the next generation, even as they bankrupt the current one. But booms – with their more rational allocation of capital – are better. The problem is that exuberance can make it hard to tell one from the other.

How can Chris be so sure? Because “the Internet and digital media are clearly not fads” and “some silly bubble-era ideas are starting to actually make sense – perhaps a lot of sense.” But the key, he says, is that it costs less to start and run a Boom 2.0 company, and that means less venture capital, and less venture capital means “fewer venture capitalists hustling for early exits at high valuations. That, in turn, reduces the pressure to go public and translates to fewer undercooked companies launching IPOs on hype alone.”

A fair point — and one I’ve talked about with friends recently: where does that leave VCs? Hunting around for deals to do, and watching companies grow and be acquired with no VC money at all. For what it’s worth, Om Malik says he thinks the new boom is about halfway over. How does he know that? He’s not saying. That’s a Zen koan kind of question: How do you know when a bubble is half-inflated?

My friend Mark Evans isn’t so sure about the non-bubble talk, and I think he is right to be cautious. As we all know, the phrase “it’s different this time” is what got investors into so much trouble last time around. Nick Carr also makes a good point, which is that entrepeneurs are not the ones who make a bubble a bubble, since they are the “supply” side of the equation — the problem is the “demand” side, i.e. the market. When it becomes frenetic, then the rules go out the window. Kent Newsome says everyone is swinging for the fences instead of being content with a single.

Blogs are good and bad for PR — BluePulse

Earlier today, I came across a link on Steve Rubel’s blog to the story on MobHappy about something they wrote regarding BluePulse, a cellphone app startup. As described by Steve and by Carlo of MobHappy, the site wrote something positive about BluePulse, but then Carlo questioned whether the company’s app really ran on “any phone” as it said on the website. Someone wrote back and said the copy on the site said “almost any phone” — and sure enough, when Carlo checked, it did say that.

Of course, Carlo being smart enough to know about Google’s cache, he soon found a copy of the original page, and posted it — along with a discussion of how the incident was an example of “how not to deal with blogs.” And he’s right — it is. But there’s more to it than that, interestingly enough. Although the comments on Steve’s blog said that BluePulse was ignoring the whole thing, there’s now a long and apologetic comment on MobHappy from one of the founders of BluePulse.

According to Alan Jones, he realized the copy was wrong and asked a developer to change it, and was going to get back to Carlo and apologize — but before he did, an over-eager employee responded in the comments. As he describes it:

“Luke is an enthusiastic, talented young guy… he’s also a new and enthusiastic blogger. He’s not a PR person (neither am I) and he’s definitely not an asshole. Sitting in the same room as the developer, he got word of the change I’d asked for, and took it on himself to let you know. Luke has made an important error of judgement in pretending the text was never changed. However, I don’t think it serves anybody’s interests to go making him out to be anything sinister. Come on, he’s a technical sales guy, and this is his first job out of college – who among us haven’t made an error of judgement in our early 20s?”

Alan goes on to say that blogs have been an important part of BluePulse’s success, and he says he is sorry about how things worked out — and I’m sure Luke is pretty sorry too (although he didn’t say that). I think this one is a good example not just of how companies can screw up in dealing with blogs, but how they can make it right too — and I hope Alan’s explanation and apology get the same kind of coverage his screwup did (at least Thomas Hawk and BoingBoing have made note of it).

Google and the Me2 revolution

My friend Rob Hyndman has a great post up about how the Web is playing havoc with the traditional structure of the advertising industry. But he’s not talking about things like how Google’s AdSense is revolutionizing the ad business, or how Craigslist.com is disemboweling the newspaper industry’s main profit engine, or any of that stuff. Rob’s point is a little deeper than that. He wonders if Web 2.0 doesn’t make traditional advertising a whole less effective, by allowing people to instantly fact-check and reality-check the ads they are subjected to. In that sense, Google itself provides the tools to make its own ads less relevant — an interesting snake-eating-its-own-tail conundrum.

“I’ve been noticing lately that over and over again the advice and information provided on the blogs of real people who share my interests and experiences are providing much more compelling information than any advertising that reaches me. Putting aside for now the question of branding, I’m finding that I’m repeatedly turning to blogs to find authentic and trusted buying advice from people who share my interests.”

This “democratization”of advertising, as Rob calls it, threatens a lot of the advertising that companies have grown accustomed to using, from TV ads to billboards and magazine spreads, all the way down to packaging. Yes, those tools can still raise “brand awareness,” but their message can also be almost instantaneously fact-checked and tested against the opinions and analysis of literally hundreds of people with a simple Google search. Not long ago, you would have had to read Consumer Reports magazine to get that kind of sample. Obviously there’s a lot of noise too, and blogs can (and will) be used to help extend brands and advertising. But the Web has changed that relationship fundamentally.

Plenty of food for thought. I recommend you read the entire post.

Update:

I just came across a link from Rex Hammock’s blog to a piece written by Richard Edelman, president and CEO of the world’s largest independent public relations firm, in which he discusses what he calls the Me2 Revolution — very much on the same theme as Rob’s post. And an unidentified advertising guy who calls himself Brand Cowboy has some thoughts about the concept of brands in the new media world (thanks for the tip, Stuart)

New podcast: Two boobs and a baby

I’m not that into podcasts (yet), and my kids aren’t newborns any more, but if I was and they were, I might be interested in something called Two Boobs and a Baby, which a Toronto guy named Dave Delaney set up with his wife Heather prior to the arrival of their son Sam in October (it’ll be interesting to see how my search traffic spikes as a result of that phrase). As Dave puts it on the website: “This is our first attempt at being parents [and] it is also our first attempt at a podcast — what could go wrong?”

A little over three months after starting their podcast, Dave said in a email that Two Boobs and a Baby has had over 4,000 downloads of one of the couple’s four episodes. They describe the show as “a free, PG-rated program about becoming new parents. It’s a comedy, but we hope to share our stories with other new parents who may be seeking advice, or who wish to share their stories.” The website also has a forum for parents and would-be parents to post messages or ask for advice.