Category Archives: Consumer Internet

Re-commerce: The reinvention of e-commerce

With the announcement of our investment in Groupon, it makes sense to provide some context for why we were compelled to make the investment at this time. Josh Kopelman has recently written about, the innovation that is taking place in the e-commerce market. At Battery, we’ve been following this same overall trend of innovation and referring to it as “re-commerce”, the reinvention of e-commerce. We believe that Groupon is a major player in this reinventing of the huge and growing e-commerce industry.

For the past 15 years, the Internet has been centered on community, content, collaboration and commerce. Community has been revolutionized by social networking. Content has been changed forever by user-generated content. Collaboration has been re-imagined by myriad online services. Until recently, the modern online shopping experience was nearly identical to shopping online many years ago. We believe that there are fundamental changes taking place in the e-commerce world, similar to what happened in offline retail over many years, with the advent of discount retailers, big box specialty retailers and warehouse clubs.

There are many innovations that we have seen over the course of the past few years, but there are five that have been particularly exciting for us at Battery (*Represent Battery investments) .

  • Private flash sales (Gilt, RueLala)
  • Collective buying / demand aggregation (Groupon*, LivingSocial)
  • Customization (J. Hilburn*, CafePress)
  • Crowdsourcing (Threadless, Modcloth)
  • Democratization (Fingerhut*, Etsy)

The new models of e-commerce that are emerging are not fads. They are tapping into all of the same trends that are impacting the broader web, including social, personalization and gaming. Most importantly, they are yielding e-commerce businesses that deliver better experiences for consumers and are more profitable than their predecessors. Many investors look at the valuations of public e-commerce companies and dismiss the entire sector. You can expect Battery to invest heavily in the sector as we view re-commerce as an opportunity to create enormous wealth by reinventing an industry that has been stagnant for too long.

Why OpenGraph helps Facebook become a $100 billion company

I had the good fortune of being able to attend Facebook’s F8 conference today. While I’ve been quite the Facebook (as a business) fanboy for some time, after today I’m absolutely convinced that with OpenGraph, Facebook has finally exposed the true power of its platform in a way that will help it create incredible value in the coming years. Today’s discussion at F8 didn’t directly touch upon the value of OpenGraph to Facebook, but I believe that the value of the data that Facebook will collect and organize via OpenGraph will allow it to build search and advertising businesses potentially more powerful and sizable than those of Google.

I’ve written before about the importance of data in advertising and the trend towards buying audience rather than impressions. Facebook’s OpenGraph will create the richest user profiles yet, enabling advertisers to target specific audiences based on their friends, Likes, and activity, anywhere that audience can be found on the web. This kind of data and targeting differs from Google’s search-based intent data in that it helps advertisers reach their target consumers earlier in the purchase funnel, enabling what Facebook has called demand generation. This data, combined with the potential of earned media via Facebook and its social plugins, could be the key to shifting billions of dollars in brand advertising spend to the web.

Potentially more important is what I consider to be an entirely new category of search, which I refer to as “subjective search”, that may finally be realized because of OpenGraph data. While Google will likely continue to dominate search for queries where there are objective results, my view is that Facebook will become the default search provider for queries that are subjective in nature. After all, with a graph of my preferences, those of my friends and those of the broader web population, won’t Facebook be in the best position to tell me what Italian restaurant to eat at in Palo Alto, what action movie to see on Friday night or where to go on vacation with my family?

I’m not sure that anyone could have honestly envisioned that we would see another Google-type business in our lifetimes. But by wielding the power of OpenGraph, Facebook could build yet another incredible business based on search and ads. My frequent comment that Facebook will be worth $100 billion sometime this decade has regularly been met with laughter and ridicule. I wonder if that statement will still get the same response after today.

4 sources of long term differentiation and competitive advantage

Despite the slowdown in venture investing during most of last year, it seems like venture activity picked up significantly in Q4. The data is consistent with my own experience during the quarter, where I saw a huge increase in companies seeking financing, the return of multiple competitors for every investment opportunity and incredibly compressed fundraising processes. I fear that we’re returning to an investing and startup environment much like the one prior to October 2008. One impact of this behavior is that we’ll likely see, as before, the funding of many companies in the same market or with similar offerings (many people point to location-based social networking companies such as Foursquare, Gowalla, Booyah, etc. as a good example). That’s led me to try to outline what I think are the only ways for web technology companies to truly have long term differentiation. Clearly, with time and money, talented people render most software and user experiences alone indefensible. So how do Internet and digital media companies create sustainable competitive advantage? 

Network effects: Businesses with network effects have products or services that increase in value as more customers use them. When a network effects business achieves scale, it can have incredibly lasting differentiation because recreating that network poses significant challenges to competitors. Microsoft Office, eBay and Yelp are good examples of these types of products and services. Some network effects businesses can have both positive and negative network effects. For example, as many social media businesses grow in use, the volume of content to filter and absorb can become overwhelming.

Switching costs: Products or services that make it difficult or expensive to use an alternative product or service have switching costs. Creating this kind of lock-in is a true barrier for competition. DoubleClick’s DFA product is a great example of a product that had tremendous value because it was embedded in the agency online media buying process and was used by many people within agencies.

Scale: For a product or service, differentiation can be derived from scale in customer usage, capital expenditure or data. As an example, Google enjoys incredible differentiation and competitive advantage from all three sources. Hundreds of millions of people conduct billions of searches on Google each day, leading websites that want to integrate search to turn to the de facto standard in the industry. Google has spent untold sums of money on hundreds of thousands of machines in datacenters around the world to deliver the fastest, freshest and most relevant search results to its users. The hundreds of millions of clicks generated each day on search results provide Google with a vast quantity of data and insights that help improve search quality. Any new search competitor not only has to deliver a superior consumer search experience, but it also has to spend enormous amounts of money recreating the underlying infrastructure and data that makes Google such a powerful competitive force.

Culture/People: Given that web technology itself is largely indefensible, the greatest source of differentiation and competitive advantage is often execution, and that is predicated on people and the culture in which they operate. Whether it’s the culture of innovation at Google, the culture of customer happiness at Zappos or the culture of freedom and responsibility at Netflix, I’m certain that the management teams from those companies would point to the employees and the DNA of the organizations as the primary reasons for their success. I find that when the culture of a company is well-defined, it is usually a direct reflection of the founder(s) and their conscious decision to establish a well-defined company culture from the start. I only know of a few instances where the culture of an organization was either instilled in the organization at a later point in the company’s development or successfully recast by new leadership.

When choosing what investments to make, I try to keep these sources of differentiation top of mind. It’s easy to get caught up in the appeal of a sexy new consumer application or a seemingly novel approach to a business problem. But lasting, significant equity value is often only created when one or more of these differentiating factors are at play. Are there other sources of differentiation that you would add to the list?

If you build it, they might not come

A while back I wrote a piece for The Battery Charger, my firm’s quarterly newsletter, about our investment focus within the Internet and Digital Media sectors. As I noted in that article, we invest in both consumer-facing media properties and enabling technologies. In my meetings of late, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend amongst companies that belong to the first category. While almost all of the presenting media companies have slick demos and whiz-bang product features, very few of them have gone to the trouble of outlining their strategy for possibly the most important and difficult piece of building any successful media business: acquiring consumers.

 

As a VC, one of the fundamental questions I ask when meeting entrepreneurs is about the unit economics of their business. How much does it cost to acquire a consumer and what is the lifetime value of that consumer once you acquire him or her? Most thoughtful entrepreneurs have considered this issue and can offer an answer. However, when I ask what strategies they are using to acquire users at the cited costs, I’m surprised by how often the response I get is a simple statement about some combination of SEO, SEM and viral marketing. Without fail, the entrepreneurs cite examples of other products that have been built on largely word-of-mouth alone.

 

I would argue that the next level of detail is critical to a well-thought out strategy for user acquisition. What are the specific tools and techniques that will be used to improve and optimize your SEO and SEM results (e.g., avoid dynamic URLs, use descriptive page titles, etc.)? What other steps will you take to create awareness for your product or service (e.g., blogging, content syndication, email marketing, etc.)? Which aspects of your product encourage sharing and linking or generate network effects? Good investors or advisors will not only ask these questions but offer some tips and tactics or relevant contacts of their own. They’ll also look to understand the overall quality of the traffic that is being generated, seeking that coveted shift in traffic from paid sources and organic search to direct navigation. My rule of thumb is that 30% direct navigation indicates the beginnings of brand loyalty and that 50% is evidence of strong traffic quality.

 

Admittedly, tackling the problem of user acquisition is extremely challenging and complex. But that doesn’t mean that it should be ignored or given short shrift. There are many resources that can help identify best practices for various consumer acquisition strategies and tactics. For example, Google itself publishes some good SEO guidelines and other helpful hints can be found on SEOmoz.org and SEObook.com. However you identify the strategies or whatever the approaches you choose, the crucial thing to remember is that a good product typically isn’t good enough, especially if you’re competing against incumbent players. Investors are certainly aware of that fact and entrepreneurs should demonstrate that they are as well.

The short form vs. long form video holy war

As a board member of a company in the online video advertising market (FreeWheel), I regularly get to chat with many video content producers, owners and distributors. Without fail, the fervent “holy war” between short form and long form video zealots arises as a top of conversation. Without getting into the nuances of the debate, the short formists argue that the web audience wants its video in bite-sized chunks, unlike a traditional television viewing experience. They inevitably point to the popularity of YouTube as evidence for their perspective. The long formists maintain that short form video only dominates online video viewing because long form content has been slow to come online. Of late, long formists have cited recent data from Nielsen that shows the growth in the online video streaming of Hulu. Neither side seems willing to open their minds to the possibility that there might be a little grey in their black and white worlds.

 

I’ve found religion and my faith lies with the availability of high quality online video of any length. The only thing that matters online, like across all media channels, is the value that someone gets from the content. There are vast audiences for both books and magazines, arguably the long form and short form, respectively, of the print world. On television, I can get my comedy fix from 23 minutes of Seinfeld or from short sketches on Saturday Night Live. Why can’t the same coexistence of content be true for online video? After all, I’m just as happy to watch two minutes of low production value Riegel & Blatt as I am 43 minutes of Lost in high definition because each video provides me with (very different!) entertainment value. Content producers should not be occupying themselves with discussions about the appropriate duration of online video. Instead, the path to salvation is will be found by focusing on creating quality content and on working to get that content distributed, discovered and monetized.    

 

 

 

Dude, that’s so meta

In recent weeks, everyone that I have spoken with claims to suffer from some form of information overload related to digital media. As content creation has become cheap and simple for the masses, and the cost of building online businesses has dropped, the volume of online content, activity and communication has grown enormously. According to a recent Deloitte & Touche study, nearly half of all U.S. media consumers are now creating content for others to see. People are not only explicitly creating content for consumption, but they are also increasingly broadcasting their online and offline activity via services like Facebook and Twitter. All of this information has led to the development of “meta layer” applications and services to help consumers filter and organize information so that they can find and consume what is most relevant and timely for them.

Examples of these meta layers can be found in many areas. Digg and Google News are meta layers for news. Friendfeed and Socialthing are meta layers for social networks. Bloglines and Google Reader are meta layers for blogs. Mint and Wesabe are meta layers for personal finance. (Even ad networks have meta layers, such as Rubicon Project and Pubmatic.) Unfortunately, the challenge for online consumers remains. Seemingly, the number of meta layers will soon present the same problem as individual sources of information do currently. Further, these meta layers take varying approaches to filtering and organizing information for the consumer. Fine-tuned algorithms, wisdom of the crowds, trusted networks, expert curation, explicit consumer actions and implicitly derived interests are all techniques utilized by meta layers.

Ultimately, consumers only care about the value that they get from using a meta layer and not the approach taken to providing that value. Consumers will want many different filters for content but will want to control when and how content is filtered and presented. Networks effects will be the true differentiator that separates the winners in the meta layer wars from the losers. If a person extracts greater value whenever another person uses the same meta layer, both the value proposition and the adoption of the layer will grow exponentially. Depending on the meta layer application, scale in the user base can provide consumers with higher quality benchmark data, greater market liquidity, more relevant results or unexpected personal connections. I haven’t come across a meta layer that really provides differentiated value via network effects. Until I do, and despite the need for them, I’m skeptical that any single meta layer application or service will reach the critical mass needed to provide outsized venture returns.

Quick hits: Target, ad networks and the Super Bowl

I’ve been remiss in posting on some fascinating things that have taken place in the digital media industry over the past month. Fortunately, the two major reasons there has been a delay are because of closing an investment that we announced early this week and because of my total engrossment in the transformation of my New York Giants from playoff afterthoughts to Super Bowl Champions (which I’ll comment on below). I’ll do better going forward (I hope). Without further ado…..

Target and customer dialogue: Last month, Amy Jussel of ShapingYouth.org published a blog post in which she shared an opinion about a recent Target billboard advertisement. She also called Target several times, to which Target responded in an email by saying that “Target does not participate with non-traditional media outlets.” Now whether you agree with Amy’s perspective or not, I think we can agree that corporations are doomed if their response to feedback from customers, in any form, is to dismiss it outright. If Amy had written a letter or sent an email, would Target have responded similarly? My guess is only if the customer service representative wanted to lose his or her job. The impact of customer service on word-of-mouth, brand perception and profits can’t be overestimated, particularly in a digital world where switching costs are negligible and customer acquisition costs can be sky high. Emerging companies like Satisfaction and Bazaarvoice (a Battery portfolio company) are focusing on the dialogue between and amongst brands and their customers to create new commerce and service opportunities. Leveraging consumers’ increasingly visible and explicit perception of brands and products in this way is just beginning. In addition, we’ve already seen that the empowering of consumers via digital media can save television shows and change company policy. Undoubtedly, we will eventually see an online consumer uprising that results in a tumbling stock price and executive job losses. The companies that fail to take advantage of the availability of consumer data and to engage in an open dialogue with customers do so at their own peril.

OnMediaNYC and ad networks: I had the pleasure of speaking at the OnMediaNYC conference at the end of January. One of the major things that struck me coming out of the conference is the incredible challenge that advertisers and agencies face in sifting through all of the various media outlets and ad networks now vying for their ad dollars. And that is exactly why scale matters so much. With multi-million dollar budgets to deploy and limited human and research resources, advertisers and agencies can only purchase media in so many places. And the simple rule of thumb is to pay attention to the outlets that can provide them with the most reach. Until there are better research, buying and analytical tools (if you know of any, send them my way!) for them, advertisers and agencies will only spend time with the largest publishers and networks. The challenge then for the publishers and networks is to achieve the scale necessary to rise above the noise and get the attention of potential buyers. Too many of the ad networks that I saw at OnMediaNYC focused on nifty targeting technologies and whiz bang ad formats. Very few talked about how they intend to achieve the scale necessary to have advertisers and agencies even spend time learning about their approaches. There are well over 300 ad networks in the market today, but I expect that there will be far fewer that achieve the scale needed to survive over the long term.

New York Giants, Super Bowl Champions, and teams: As a life-long Giants fan, I was fortunate to attend not only one of the great games in Super Bowl history, but also a game that ended in an unbelievable victory by my favorite team. There are lessons for business to be drawn from many parts of life, but as I left the stadium that night I was struck by a particular message. It sounds flowery and obvious, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that a team of individuals committed to each other and to a common goal always have a fighting chance, even in the face of naysayers and accepted theory. As venture capitalists, we tend to place a great deal of emphasis on the teams with which we partner. The Giants’ Super Bowl victory reminded me that there is a reason that we seek traits like focus, persistence and commitment in our entrepreneurs and that we strive to give them the same in return. In our business, often times market opportunities are not obvious to outsiders or simple to address. But a determined team that believes in its abilities can sometimes achieve outstanding results, even while those on the outside criticize its ideas and approaches. Just ask the Giants.

 

Super Bowl XLII

The calm before the widget storm

After a summer where seemingly every article about the web and social media included discussions about widgets as the next big thing, there has been a relative lull in the widget hype during the fall. Given that widgets themselves are nothing new to the Internet, the period of calm should have been expected. Code and applications that can be embedded and executed in web pages have been around since the first page view counters and banner ad tags. More recent examples of “widgets” include Google AdSense, the YouTube video player and Facebook applications. But that is not to say that the whirlwind of widget press should be ignored altogether. The proliferation of social networks, blogs, media sharing sites, start pages, etc., are all indicative of an overall fragmentation of the web. Anyone interested in reaching consumers needs to be where they are, not where they want them to be.  The portability and interactivity of widgets enables the desired connection to consumers to be made simply and effectively. For that reason, and many others, what we are currently experiencing is likely only the calm before the widget storm.

 

When widgets first got the attention of the media, it was largely because of the novelty of allowing consumers to embed widgets in the same way that they were previously embedded by website owners. Companies such as Slide and RockYou established themselves as early leaders in the creation of widgets for consumers. Other companies, like MuseStorm, Clearspring and Goowy Media emerged to provide applications and services to enterprises for widget authoring, distribution and tracking. Over the past few months, each of these enterprise-facing companies seems to have reached the same conclusion….that an end-to-end solution, including monetization, is the best way to attack the market.

 

The market for banner ads provides an interesting model for the potential development of the widget market. Ad serving technologies became a commodity over time because they only enabled publishers to distribute and track banner ads. The authoring was left to agencies and the monetization was left to publishers and third party ad networks. The most value accrued to companies like Google, which provided all of the needed capabilities. Given that ad serving platforms are now embedded at most agencies and publishers, the preferred infrastructure for distribution and tracking is largely in place. The successful widget companies will integrate with and complement these existing systems by providing tracking, analytics and monetization capabilities that are unique to widgets. Consumer-facing widget companies will need these same capabilities internally to establish sustainable business models.

 

The recent monetization partnership announcements by Clearspring and KickApps may be early indicators of the maturation of the widget market and a flurry of economic activity around widgets. Like banners and search before them, and like video and mobile now, widgets are a new form of media that require their own infrastructure and monetization models. The companies that deliver those solutions will be the ones that survive the coming storm of widget activity and avoid being washed away with the widget companies that have not established a firm foundation for their businesses.

Close encounters of the Facebook Beacon kind

I had my first experience with Facebook Beacon this past weekend when I purchased movie tickets for “American Gangster” from Fandango.com. Moments after my purchase a notification popped up in the lower right hand corner of my screen (similar to the email notification in Outlook) asking me if I wanted to publish my purchase to my Facebook. I chose the “No thanks” option given that I didn’t want to effectively recommend the movie without having seen it at that time. Later, when I visited Facebook, I had an alert asking me whether I wanted to publish my Fandango “story” for other users to see. I was given the option of publishing my purchase, opting out of publishing that specific purchase or opting out of publishing actions on Fandango altogether.

 

I had three reactions to this rather alien experience, which if shared by other consumers, do not bode well for Facebook’s Social Ads. First, I was irritated that despite having opted out while on Fandango, I was still prompted to publish my purchase upon my next visit to Facebook. Second, although I was given the ability to opt out of having Fandango send purchases to my profile, it was frustrating to see that I will still get notifications whenever I take actions on Fandango itself. Lastly, it was worrisome that my actions on Fandango seemingly will continue to be recorded by Facebook, even though I opted out of publishing them to my profile.

 

Aside from the obvious privacy issues associated with collecting information on my actions without my consent, there are fundamental consumer issues with Beacon which should concern Facebook. The experience of having a Facebook notification appear while on another site will likely be unsettling for most consumers. I will be surprised if the opt in rate for publishing actions at that point in the process is significant enough to generate much volume for Social Ads. If Beacon becomes widely implemented, the sheer number of notifications on Facebook and other sites could become a serious annoyance for consumers, leading to further opt out or even abandonment of Facebook altogether. With only a small number of actions likely to be published to profiles, the potential inventory for Social Ads becomes limited. Any advertiser that elects to target more granularly than a specific action will be addressing audiences that incredibly are small. Advertisers are not interested in actively managing a marketing channel that only reaches a small audience and generates an even smaller number of qualified clicks. Unless Facebook addressed the consumer experience with Beacon, there may be no viable option for advertisers interested in the Facebook audience.

 

Clearly, Facebook intends to iterate on the Beacon model, but I think that when it comes to the consumer experience, the first impression matters a great deal. Unfortunately for Facebook, this close encounter of the third kind with Beacon may leave consumers feeling like their actions have been abducted by aliens rather than used to communicate effectively and privately with their fellow human beings.

I can’t be the only one without a Facebook post!

There is no shortage of commentary on the $15 billion valuation of Microsoft’s deal with Facebook. As Facebook’s investors have said themselves, Facebook needs to perform incredibly well over the coming years to grow into the valuation. So how exactly is that going to be done?

 

To date, Facebook’s monetization strategy has centered mainly on attempts to sell sponsorships for groups or user profile-based text ads called Flyers. A recent conversation with one of the big agencies revealed the cost associated with sponsoring groups, as measured by people and activity in the group, far surpasses traditional CPMs. Yet, the same agency pointed out that no agency employee is getting promoted without having purchased a sponsored group on Facebook. The promise of building relationships with users that are passionate about brands is a major lure for advertisers. How long can Facebook count on agencies to ignore the poor fundamental economics and effectiveness of sponsored groups? It would seem that the revenue realized from groups this year is a temporary anomaly, unless something fundamentally changes in user behavior.

 

As for Flyers, Facebook doesn’t even provide advertisers with click-through rates for the Basic version, suggesting instead that “the value proposition of Flyers is primarily the high volume and localized exposure of your ad, not click through rates”. Flyers Pro is a cost-per-click product that doesn’t address the needs of brand advertisers or those interested in “engagement”. Further, I’m told that click-through rates are only slightly better than for standard banner ads, yielding only a nominal effective CPM for Facebook. This matches the experience that we had at Google working with social networking sites like Orkut, MySpace and Hi5 on various targeting techniques. The fact is that targeting ads based on user profile information performs only marginally better than contextual targeting or no targeting at all. It’s also incredibly difficult for advertisers to purchase campaigns at scale when segmentation and targeting get too granular. So don’t count on Flyers to be the magic monetization bullet either.

 

Recent reports suggest that we will have a much better idea about the future of advertising on and potentially off of Facebook after its big advertising announcement in New York on November 6th. Let’s hope that the new targeting models and ad formats introduced are dramatically different than what we have seen to date.  Importantly, they need to engage users within the context of the primarily communication-oriented activities that take place on Facebook. The success of advertising on Facebook is important not just for the company, but for all of social media, which now accounts for over 25% of all web page views. Someone is going to crack the social media monetization problem. To live up to its expectations and valuation, Facebook better hope that it has devised the scalable, effective social media monetization solution that has so far eluded its competitors and its recent investor.