Monday, December 05, 2011

The Lifespan of Dot Coms

A while back I read an editorial that argued,
It appears to take about 10 to 15 years for technology to improve enough to make a new idea powerful enough to dislodge the incumbent money maker on the Web. To date, no one has been successful at turning around an Internet company that is past its peak.
I agree with that in part - it has proved to be very difficult to turn around a failing Internet company. But I disagree with the author's concept of the 10-15 year lifespan, or her reasoning behind asserting such a lifespan.
Consumer-oriented Internet companies are brought to life through the application of a new technology and then unseated about 10 years later by a newer technology. Yahoo had an incumbent advertising platform (display ads) that couldn't do advertising as well as Google search. Google today has an incumbent platform that can't do better than Facebook because Facebook began with a clean sheet of paper and an extra 10 years of technology.
But take a look at MySpace, "unable to turn itself around despite its first-mover advantage", and ask yourself whether that had more to do with outdated technology, or its acquisition by a company that didn't know what to do with it. For an example from much earlier in the life of the Internet, Yahoo! and Excite ran neck-in-neck until Excite was acquired by @Home Networks, and its subsequent tanking seemed to have a lot more to do with post-acquisition management decisions than with technology. I similarly find no merit in the notion that Facebook has an a technological advantage over Google - I suspect the opposite, particularly in relation to its core service of social networking - or that it's nascent advertising platform is going to be Google's undoing.

But as I see another dot com bubble emerge, with our being urged to believe that perennial money-losers like Angie's List, companies with no clear path to significant earnings like LinkedIn, or companies like Groupon and Facebook that respectively claim that their brand is so powerful that we can ignore their unprofitability or that their valuation is justified by their potential to develop new revenue streams from a large user base, I can't help but be reminded of the first dot com bubble.

First, the thing that makes Internet companies so attractive to investors or buyers (and here I'm speaking of VC's, angels and corporate acquisitions, not ordinary investors) seems to be the same thing that makes them vulnerable to collapse. You can start a dot com with a good idea, a tiny core staff, and a seven figure investment. You can create a company ostensibly worth billions that has (or rents) a server farm, and has a few hundred to a couple of thousand employees. But if what the company does is not special, or does not remain special, a competitor will have the opportunity to take most of its market share. When a genuine competitor is available, minor missteps by management can have serious consequences for the company's long-term viability.

Although it's an imperfect test, one interesting thing about companies like LinkedIn, Groupon, Facebook, Twitter and the like is how little disruption there would be if they dropped off the face of the planet. If you woke up tomorrow morning and you weren't an employee of Zynga, how much would your life change if you found that Facebook was gone? Minutes? Hours? If it would take you days, odds are you're either a major online marketer or you simply aren't invested enough in Facebook to take the time to set up, say, a Google Plus account.

Second, no company can survive in the long-term unless it has a path to profitability. If you want to roll the dice on the IPO of an unprofitable or barely profitable Internet company and you're not an insider, recent IPO's confirm that you should wait for the dust to settle as the share price is likely to drop significantly within days to weeks. Even then, you're evoking the expectations of the first dot com bubble - that "eyeballs" will translate to massive profits before the company burns through its cash and investor confidence wanes.

If an Internet company brings nothing special to the table, and barriers to entry remain low, and they lack either the vision or the capital to preempt a "new kid in town," it's reasonable to expect that they will eventually be replaced by a "cool new" alternative. And once your popularity tanks, no matter how cool you were the first time around, if you want to pull off a comeback you will probably need to rebrand.

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