Come with me back to the mid to late 90s. Remember those years?
Remember trying to find office space in and around the Bay area? First Tuesday meetings with three thousand green badged ‘entrepreneurs’ chasing three red-badged ‘VCs’ around the room? Remember pets.com, WebVan, boo.com and the million other startups hoping to make it into this brave new online world? The mass of money pouring into crazy no-hope projects for the slim chance of picking the right one? The multitude of companies who added an ‘e’ or an ‘i’ to the front of their names? Or a ‘.com’ at the end?
Remember all those companies whose sole method of ever making money was via advertising …?
Fast forward back to today and you may wonder whether anything has changed. Are we going through the same cycle again, you might ask?
I’d suggest the answer is probably ‘yes’ … and ‘no’.
Let’s look at the similarities to last time: there are certainly far too many ‘me too’ products, most of which will fail or be picked up in a fire sale. How many social networks or video sharing sites do we really need? Especially when there’s little to no differentiation between them. There are plenty of social news sites, but no’ones quite struck the right formula just yet (Digg may be close, but has its own issues to deal with). And we’ve got widget, wiki, blogging and portal offerings coming out of our ears. There’s a lot of investment money still to be had, even with the current squeeze on the US market, and a lot of online businesses offer free services in the hope of ad revenue.
Secondly, whilst there are still plenty of ‘green-horns’ running web businesses, a lot of the companies this time around are run by those people who went through the first-round: for better or for worse. It doesn’t yet mean they necessarily know how to run a successful company, but you have to believe it helps.
I also think that in terms of advertising as a business model, whilst not perfect and whilst still very risky for most ventures, it is more viable than before. Platforms such as Google adsense and ad-words, Facebooks flyers and Beacon, the work that News Limited are doing on the MySpace and syndicated advertising platform mean there’s a lot more serious and targeted effort being put in now than the simple sale of banner-ads or annoying pop-ups. Acquisitions by the big players of companies like eQuantive and the like ensure major investment in this field. That coupled with the drop-off in traditional advertising means that there’s a potential gap to fill (although, for now, the drop off in offlline advertising isn’t being reflected 1:1 online – by a long way).
There will still be large challenges to this model, not least of which a number of privacy issues yet to be fully resolved, but you have to believe that whilst the gold rush dreams should well and truly be put-aside, there’s still some pretty decent money to be made in them thar hills!
If there’s a common thread, it’s that whilst plenty of silly businesses have and will perish in both rounds, the basic tenets of business online have survived and there are plenty doing it well (see the acquisition of Homestead recently as a prime example of survival!)
Predictors of another bubble burst and predictors of nothing but flowers and glory will, in my humble opinion, both be wrong!
(oh, the story about Boo. Nothing too exciting, but I saw Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander presenting at a First Tuesday event in London in the late 90s, and I have to say that if you can predict a companies future by the terrible performance of its leaders – especially Ernst – you would have been pulling your money out as fast as you could!)
PS: looks like boo.com is now a travel company of sorts