It’s hard to go even a few blocks in New York these days without hearing about Foursquare, the location-based social network. With more than 600,000 subscribers and endless media attention, the startup is now being actively wooed by four major venture capital investors, which are valuing it at between $50 million and $70 million. Who will get to invest? Only time will tell.
But Foursquare isn’t the only startup seeking a “big round” at a “big valuation.” Back in Silicon Valley, one of the hottest deals under way right now is Quora, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company co-founded by ex-Facebookers including its former CTO, Adam D’Angelo. My sources tell me the company is seeking to raise an amount of money that would eventually see it valued at as much as $100 million. Will Quora get it? Who knows. But one thing is clear: Big-ticket investments are making a comeback.
Valley’s Meh! Phase
From the way I see it (and I am a contrarian), we are in the meh phase of the technology cycle. Meh, according to Wikipedia, is “an interjection, often an expression of apathy, indifference, or boredom.” For me this meh phase means that the technologies being developed are increasingly incremental. (This is not a knock on web startups; when I covered semiconductor and networking startups, I experienced this same phenomenon.)
On the web today, Twitter and Facebook are solidifying their positions of dominance. In many ways, what transpired in the search business — Google won the game and left mere morsels for its competitors — is happening in social networks.
The new reality of the social web (and the Internet) is that both Facebook and (to some extent) Twitter are dominating our online attention, siphoning minutes away from other services. In the process they are making it difficult for other services to capture our imagination and time. Even Farmville, the blockbuster game from Zynga, is dependent on Facebook for our attention.
Few startups offer services that generate the same kind of excitement as those that emerged in the first half of the decade — namely Flickr, Digg, Reddit, MySpace, Twitter and Facebook — but the four I like are Spotify, Foursquare, Gowalla and DailyBooth. Of them, one is still not available in the U.S. (Spotify), the other two are mobile-centric and the last — DailyBooth — well, frankly I’m too damn old for it.
Two new services have already become part of my daily routine — Quora and Hunch, both of which provide a smart way to deal with the increasing deluge of information on the web — but they are slightly ahead of their time, are a tad too cerebral and are waiting to hit the hockey-stick part of their growth curve. There are other useful, fun apps out there, of course, but none of them are spreading like wildfire just yet. The fact is that we need higher-speed connections and better back-end technologies to really unleash a new phase of innovation — but that’s a topic for another discussion.
In the meantime, these “exciting” companies that I just pointed out have all raised or are looking to raise a humongous amount of money, among them. Spotify for example, has raised more than $50 million from the likes of Li Ka-Shing and Founder’s Fund while Hunch has raised $12 million from Khosla Ventures.
On the flip side, we’re seeing a lot of excitement around connected devices, especially smartphones and new computing platforms such as slates and tablets. Whether you like the iPhone or not, it goes without saying that it has transformed higher-end phones into a major platform of innovation. There are 140,000 apps on the iPhone, another 30,000 on Android and hundreds if not thousands more are in the process of being created every day.
The applications on these connected platforms treat social networking and location services as mere features. Facebook Connect is nothing more than an authentication mechanism — and a smart, simple way to socialize on the web. Similarly, location is merely a way to provide context to what you’re doing — whether that be watching a movie or eating pizza at the neighborhood pizzeria. Whether you buy this information from Skyhook Wireless, use Google Latitude or check in on Foursquare, location information is an infrastructure service.
Ride the Momentum
With the building blocks (Facebook Connect, location data) and platforms (iPhone, Android, Chrome, web) already in place, as an entrepreneur you now have the opportunity to develop compelling user experiences. Those that offer the most simplicity — to the point of bordering on serendipity — will be a driving force in the years to come. I argued as much during a bloggers-only panel at MediaPost’s OMMA Conference in San Francisco. But achieving such simplicity is a much tougher task than most realize.
Why? Because tomorrow’s applications and devices will have to handle copious amounts of data that can be impacted by one or more variables, such as social networking status updates and geo-location information. To stand out, entrepreneurs will have to build fairly unique and compelling game-like experiences. Dennis Crowely and his co-founders have done exactly that with Foursquare.
Even though it currently has fewer than a million users, people are excited about Foursquare — hence the venture capital firms bidding up the company’s next capital infusion. While with Hunch it’s all about deep technology and a high-quality management team, the others have momentum. That’s why I predict that fast-growing DailyBooth will soon do a big round, in the process justifying Brian Pokorny giving up his lucrative gig as a venture capitalist and becoming its CEO.
Such momentum is what VCs are betting on, for these big-ticket deals have the potential to break out of the cycle of incrementalism that we’re in. And momentum plus cash, as Facebook and Twitter have proven, goes a long way towards firming up a startup’s place in the technology landscape.
But it does not guarantee success.