Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Web 2.Whoa!

I spent yesterday in Silicon Valley, or, actually "Silicon Valley," as in "Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford: The Oxford Forum on Entrepreneurship and Innovation," a day-long seminar at the university's Said Business School. About two dozen high-tech people--Web company founders, venture capitalists, assorted innovators--traded the California sunshine for a steady English drizzle to impart their wisdom to MBAs-in-training and other assorted attendees.

The speakers were all lined up on stage, shooting gallery style, for the opening session, giving me a chance to ponder important things, such as their choice of clothing. Represented on the dais, fashionwise, were:
Internet Millionaire Schlub (LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman)
Metallica Roadie (YouNoodle.com co-founder and recent Oxford grad Kirill Makharinsky, wearing a goatee and a black T-shirt that read "Creative Juggernaut")
Neck-tied Mike Brady Lookalike (venture capitalist Allen Morgan, who said, "The Web in 2007 is finally the platform we thought it was in 1997.")
Steve Jobs Clone (Jerry Saunders, in black mock turtle neck; he had several of the day's great lines, including: "I was asked to leave every single I job I had. That's when I realized I was an entrepreneur.")
Creative Genius "Regular Guy" (Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and developer of Xanga, Blogger and Odeo)

I don't spend much time around entrepreneurs so it was all heady stuff. I really got the feeling that if you had a good idea (and the right contacts and the right funding, two things you could have picked up if only you'd been there) you could be a success.

I also detected the low-grade hum of money. Of riches. Though speaker after speaker insisted that budding entrepreneurs should not be thinking about their "exit amount"--that magical number you get when you sell your successful start-up to Google or Microsoft--surely such thoughts were dancing in everyones' heads. I know they were in mine, especially when some of the speakers, like Hoffman and Google's Chris Sacca, talked about investing in friends' companies as if they were buying beers. Wouldn't it be great to be able to give a struggling entrepreneur $50,000 or $100,000 to help get a great idea off the ground, not least of all because it would mean you were wealthy enough to give someone $100,000?

So, What Did I Learn?

That I probably don't have the balls to be an Internet entrepreneur. But I learned other stuff too. Paul Graham of early-phase funding group Y Combinator said entrepreneurs should "Look for things that are evil or broken or stupid." That's where you can make a splash.

The buzz word of the day was "API." APIs are really, really important. Everybody should have one. Sadly, I don't know what APIs are. (I think they're like little bundles of programming that allow cool things to work across platforms. Can someone enlighten me in the comments, please?)

Are we approaching Bubble 2.0? Maybe, but it shouldn't matter, or certainly won't be as bad as when the tech bubble burst in 2000. Costs are down for things like data storage and programming and a better economic infrastructure is in place. Besides, good ideas prosper, even in bad markets.

Biz Stone, of flavor-of-the-moment Twitter, spoke in a masterclass about his background, from book designer to Web entrepreneur. Isn't he worried, I asked, that fickle techheads will leave Twitter behind, the way they abandoned Xanga for MySpace then MySpace for Facebook? No, he said. Besides, Twitter is something that exists on multiple platforms, that moves with you. "If you do a good enough job of sending them away, they will come back," he said.

I thought it would be rude to ask how he makes money off of Twitter. Luckily someone else did. As far as I can tell, he doesn't. They want to build up as many users as possible before they "monetize" the operation, a process that could include ads, though Stone agreed that was kind of gross.

If the attendees at a session with four recent Oxford grads heed what they heard, Oxford might empty out. To paraphrase the Beverly Hillbillies: "Californy is the place you oughta be, so they loaded up the truck, and they moved to the Vall-ee...."

"Go to America, you make things easier on yourself," said Kulveer Taggar, who with Harjeet Taggar founded eBay tool Auctomatic.com. The Oxford grads had been part of start-up incubator in Silicon Valley, bouncing ideas around all day before they hit on their product.

A session on the future of media made more grim listening for anyone interested in newspapers. A dying breed, the speakers said. I'll have more on that panel discussion tomorrow.

The Guardian's Jemima Kiss has a much more coherent overview of the conference (scroll down if it's not at the top of the page). And click here for a photo that includes my polka-dotted shirt cuffs, proof--should I ever need an alibi--that I was in attendance.

The 'Space' Space
It's not a proper Silicon Valley gathering if the speakers and attendees aren't fighting the urge to say "area" or "sector" and are instead employing the S-word. Here are a few usages I jotted down:
"the consumer internet space"
"the dating space"
"the Yellow Pages space"
"the soft innovation space"
"that space" (the U.S. market)
"time space"
"lucky space"

I think the lucky space is the best place, er, space to be in.

Snagsta Rap
I was in a couple sessions with a nice chap from a Web start-up called Snagsta. According to its pre-alpha, place-holding Web site, Snagsta promises to "help you find the things Google can't." That's a simple concept, the sort of pitch a Hollywood producer would love ("It's 'Star Wars' on a dairy farm"; "I love it!").

The Snagstas hope their product becomes viral, although as one speaker pointed out, almost no one has ever made something viral on the Web in less than a year. Snagsta has funding through the middle of 2008. We have to be talking a virus of bird flu proportions for it to sweep the planet by then.

But I wish them the best of luck. If Snagsta becomes the Next Big Thing, please let it be remembered that I wrote about it first.


suburbancorrespondent said...

You mean, there are people who actually understand this stuff? And you met them?

Anonymous said...

Your Brother Said...
From Wikipedia (everyone's favorite online oracle)
"An application programming interface (API) is a source code interface that an operating system or library provides to support requests for services to be made of it by computer programs."

All that means is if I've created an application (software) I have to talk to the operating system - OS - (Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Cell Phone). I have to be able to send and receive requests and both the app and the OS need to speak a common language. The API allows them to create that language and talk to each other. The more open the API the more places you'll find the app embedded like computers, PDAs, cell phones, etc.

Now if I posted this on a computer blog I'd get slammed immediately for some inaccuracy but basically that's what it does.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to correct you, but I believe the line of that great TV theme song goes, "They loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly. Hills, that is. Swimming pools, movie stars."

Sally said...

Is that the polka dot shirt the lovely wife made?

suburbancorrespondent said...

anonymous - he said he was paraphrasing! How could anyone his age not know the right words?

cktirumalai said...

More than a century ago, Matthew Arnold, son of Oxford and Profesor of Poetry there, apostrophized the University thus: "Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties." I suppose a Silicon Valley millionaire could help the place continue to be itself.

mark from alexandria said...

Two things I notice in the "polka dot picture", the conference room had windows and access to the outside world, a rare delight in world of bureaucracy in which I toil and secondly, you appear to have recovered significantly from the famed "number 4."

If the Hillbillies were still on today, I am sure Jethro would have had a hand at being a silicon valley millionaire, with zany results, perhaps Granny serving Bill Gates some of her "rheumatiz medicine." Of course, the show would have to be called something like "The Ozark Economic Migrants that relocated to Greater Los Angeles."

towwas said...

"Said Business School" - isn't that a sentence asking for an object?

Phillip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phillip said...

John - thanks for your inspired comments about snagsta. We’re hard at work doing our best to make you famous for writing about us first! For those that are interested in following our progress check out our blog at snagsta.wordpress.com. Thanks! Phil

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