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3 posts from June 2008

June 24, 2008

America's Greatest Export?

Fareed Zakaria's new book on post-American world order is a fascinating read.  I won't speak to the political ramifications of the new world order that Zakaria outlines, but I was struck by the one important element of America's lingering contribution to the world that he seems to have missed:  entrepreneurship.  In an era where the role of America in the global economy is increasingly uncertain, I believe that one of our chief and most respected outputs will be entrepreneurialism.

American history is full of stories of great entrepreneurs.  Like in many situations, there was a strong self-selection bias.  If you were rugged and daring enough to venture across the Atlantic Ocean, you were more likely to be willing to shake things up in society than go along with the status quo.  Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin shows that Franklin - the ingenious inventor, philosopher and writer - was above all a great entreprenuer who combined practical application with commercial instincts.  Thomas Edison, still the holder of more US patents than any individual in history, continued in this great tradition throughout the 19th century.  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and other modern iconic entrepreneurs continue to inspire young entrepreneurs around the globe to pursue the art of the possible.

In recent years, the venture capital industry has tried to institutionalize entrepreneurship and export it.  By working with different entrepreneurs in a range of industries across a range of business cycles, VCs try to figure out the formula for entrepreneurial success and impart those lessons on the next generation of young Franklins and Edisons.  After 30-40 years of perfecting the recipe, they have begun to export it beyond America's shores.  In the last decade, VCs from Silicon Valley and Boston have jumped on airplanes and traveled throughout Europe, Asia and beyond to instill their brand of entrepreneurship, sponsoring venture capital funds in these regions and localizing their company-building lessons and discipline.

China's venture capital industry has exploded, from nothing a decade ago to over $1.4 billion in 2007, with expectations that it will grow tenfold in the next few years.  India's story is a similar one, with $1 billion in venture investments made in 2007.  A closer look at the firms making these investment reveals American roots.  Many of the general partners were educated in America - typically at Harvard or Stanford.  Many of the firms contain executives that learned the art of venture capital in America, either as VCs themselves or entrepreneurs at VC-backed companies.  And an increasingly number of firms are sponsored or partially owned by American VCs.  Kleiner Perkins, Sequoia, Benchmark, Accel, DFJ and many other top-tier venture capital firms have developed subsidiaries or joint ventures in Asia and Europe to practice the art of venture capital (it's still not yet a science!) in those geographies.

Thus, although America's corporate, political and military dominance may be waning - as Zakaria reports - I would argue its entrepreneurial influence is ascending, in an accelerated fashion.

June 15, 2008

Balter Delivers Bzz

One of the things I love about being a VC is the opportunity to work with passionate, brilliant, talented (and sometimes whacky) entrepreneurs.

BzzAgent CEO/founder Dave Balter is all these things, particularly whacky.

Dave is the founder of BzzAgent - the leading company in the exploding field of word of mouth marketing.  Dave co-founded the Word Of Mouth Marketing Association and wrote the definitive book on the topic, Grapevine.

This is a guy who is so transparent that in the middle of a fundraising process, he blogged about the criteria he was using to pick his VC partner.

This is a guy who invited an "artist in residence" to hang out around the office, produce all the art that decorates the walls and illustrate his second book.

Ah yes, Dave has a second book.  A monkey is on the cover.  The final chapter has excerpts from a college essay he wrote about Captain Crunch.  Leeches feature prominently in a chapter I'm still not sure I understand.  It is truly random and whacky.

Yet it is also brilliant and insightful.  Word of mouth is an elusive but potent tool for driving your business.  Dave is the Zen Master (yes, a nod to Phil Jackson) of the field and anyone who is interested in driving word of mouth for their product or service - B2C, B2B, non-profit, whatever - would benefit from reading the book.

As usual, Dave wanted to do something different with the publication of the book.  So, he decided to self-publish it.  He's making it available for free online (click here to download) or if you want the hard-cover version, you can order it on his Amazon page.

I promised Dave I'd change my name to "Bzzgang" if the company were to become a huge success.  As a result, my wife is watching the company's tremendous progress warily.

June 11, 2008

Google Is My B*&%$! (hint: rhymes with "Witch")

Ask any consumer start-up what their biggest obstacle to growth is and it's likely you'll get a consistent but surprising answer:  I simply can't find enough SEM/SEO talent.  It's not a shortage of programmers that are hindering start-up growth (much of the coding talent is being provided by offshore developers anyway), but rather the talent pool hasn't adjusted quickly enough to support the new Search Economy.

Nearly all consumer businesses are banking on search as the major source of customer acquisition - both Search Engine Marketing (SEM), where their company is featured as a paid advertisement on a search results page, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO), where their company comes up "naturally" or "organically" in the search results.  Marketing and advertising dollars that were once funneled into television, radio, print and even online banners are rapidly flowing into search as the most effective, low-cost tool for customer acquisition.

The search economy has exploded at such a stunning rate, that it's worth stepping back to really appreciate it.  The leading recipient of these funds, Google, will receive revenue over the course of 2008 in the range of $16 billion, the bulk of which is paid search.  That's an entire nation's economy built around optimizing search results in the last 4-5 years!  And the category (in which Google owns a 70% share) is growing at 30-40% per year, even in the midst of cut backs (see the association's data at www.sempo.org) - in fact, researchers seem to keep raising their estimates every year of the size and importance of SEM.

Yet, the SEM figures vastly under-report the true importance and impact of the Search Economy.  No one gets paid when a company achieves customer acquisition through SEO, but companies are spending untold resources trying to optimize their websites for natural search results.  Imagine how valuable it is for a financial services firm to appear as the first result when you type in "mortgage refinance" into Google and you can see why talented SEO wizards are worth the investment.

The problem is that the speed with which SEM and SEO have exploded on the Web has resulted in a massive talent gap.  For those that can figure out the black art of search, the rewards are lucrative.  One entrepreneur proudly declared to me, "Google is my b#&%$!" (hint:  rhymes with "witch") when describing why his business has achieved competitive advantage and profitable growth in its niche.

I recently joined the MITX (Massachusetts Innovation and Technology Exchange) board of directors and was chatting with fellow board member Don McLagan about what the region needs to do to entice young, talented college students to obtain good jobs and stick around.  The Boston Globe's Scott Kirsner is focused on this topic as well, recently writing about it in his weekly column.

I have one word for our industry:  search.  Our region's companies desparately need search talent.  And it is a talent that can be easily trained in almost a vocational fashion.  Let's create a 10-week program on SEM/SEO and have some of the local stars lend their top talent to teach it, leveraging what SEMPO has already done.  Every city has large advertising councils and Internet trade associations, but the Search Economy is wildly neglected relative to its size and importance.  If Massachusetts (and other regions?) can train young graduates in the black art of the Search Economy, then a major constraint to start-up growth will be removed.  A workforce that knows how to tame Google (absent the profanity) should be everyone's goal.