Tuesday, 20 November 2007
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)
I think the lucky space is the best place, er, space to be in.
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.