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Some startup CEOs’ New Years resolutions January 5, 2009

Posted by jeremyliew in 2009, start-up, startup, startups.
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7 comments

I asked my CEOs what their New Years Resolutions were. Here is what they resolved:

Jonathan Kibera of specialty ecommerce company Mercantila was alliterative in his focus on revenue:

Simplicity: Reduce the # of components necessary to generate revenue.
Stability: Be consistently excellent at each of these components.
Scale: Drive as much business as possible.

Lance Tokuda of social apps developer Rockyou is equally focused on revenue and mindful of the economy:

Optimize for revenue generation over growth to preserve cash in a weak advertising market.

Scott Albro of B2B media company Tippit knows what to worry about and what to not waste angst on:

Focus on what we can control and make sure, every day, that what we can control is more powerful than what we can’t.

Ed Baker of mobile virality company Demigo will be focused on execution in 2009:

Set realistic deadlines and meet them. While I will continue to encourage and work with the team to set aggressive milestones for each of our weekly releases, we need to do a better job of making sure we always meet these deadlines, and don’t let them slip.

Joe Greenstein of social movie site and app developer Flixster is making sure that his team feels the love:

Make sure everyone at flixster knows how much they matter. The further we get into this business, the more it is clear to me how directly responsible the talent and commitment of our team is not only for the successes we have had thus far, but for our hopes for the future and for the quality of the experience along the way. In a difficult economy especially, my 2009 new year’s resolution is to make sure everyone at Flixster knows that this is our company, to succeed or fail by our efforts and to be shaped along the way by our collective vision.

Amy Jo Kim of casual game publisher Shufflebrain (Photograb) is letting users guide product development as much as the company’s own vision.

My resolution is to listen to — and learn from — what the market is telling us, and mine the unexpected opportunities that are coming our way.

Siqi Chen of social game publisher Serious Business (Friends For Sale) will be putting in place the infrastructure to support the same key philosophical commitment:

In the new year, I resolve to get better at making data driven (characterize, hypothesize, predict, and test) decisions. This is an obvious point to most entrepreneurs these days, but the past year has really shown us that it isn’t as simple as just deciding to be data driven one day. Building the technology infrastructure and the engineering culture that makes this possible at scale are non-trivial projects. We’ve gotten a lot better at this in the short history of our company, but we’ve still got a long way to go, and we intend to continue to improve on this in 2009.

And finally David Scott of casual game maker Casual Collective sought more explicit communication and introspection:

Every Friday afternoon we will set aside time (away from our screens) to discuss all the things we achieved that week and list all we want to achieve in the following week. This will help keep everyone aware of what everyone else is doing, spark discussions and ideas that otherwise may not have happened, end the week with a better sense of achievement, and help us hit the ground running on Monday mornings. With such a small team we also need to better prioritize tasks.

And to lose weight of course 🙂

What are your new years resolutions for your company?

Consumer Internet Predictions for 2009 December 11, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in 2009, Consumer internet, games, games 2.0, gaming, Internet, predictions.
39 comments

For the last two years I’ve been making predictions about the consumer internet, and this year is no exception.

First let’s take a look at how I did on last years predictions:

1. Social Media advertising, Online Video advertising and In-Game advertising start to become scalable.

Grade: B-. We’re seeing much greater scale on social media and online video advertising, with a standard emerging for online video, and movement towards a standard for social networks. In-game saw some progress but not as much.

2. Structured web emerges.

Grade: C. Notwithstanding the Powerset acquisition, the structured/semantic web hasn’t been a real theme for 2008.

3. Games 2.0

Grade: A. This year was a breakout year for social networking games, web based games and free to play games. I see this growth driving several of next years predictions as well, as you’ll see below.

Now on to new predictions. Note that the remainder of this article is cross posted at the Wall Street Journal.
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Last year, consumer Internet startups sprung up left and right, looking for U.S. traffic growth and relying on the robust growth of the advertising market to make money. We enter 2009 looking down the barrel of a recession. In this environment, I predict the following trends for consumer Internet companies:

1. Consumers seek cheap thrills

Even in a recession, people will still want to be entertained. The Great Depression saw resilience and even growth in movie ticket sales as one of the cheapest ways for people to entertain themselves. As this economy tightens through 2009, we’ll find growing numbers of “time rich-cash poor” consumers seeking today’s lowest cost methods to entertain themselves. In general, this will benefit two categories of consumer Internet companies.

First, social media and social networks. These are free and endlessly entertaining. As mainstream media companies cut costs, the relative value and quality of user generated content increases. MySpace, YouTube and Facebook all rank in the top 10 Web sites by aggregate time spent according to comScore. The most popular applications on Facebook and MySpace are all games, entertainment and lightweight communication, and these can provide endless hours of entertainment for users. It isn’t just Facebook and MySpace that will benefit though. Smaller social media sites that have built enough of a critical mass to have a self sustaining community will also see growing usage over the next year.

Second, games. Games are one of the most cost effective means of entertainment available. While a $10 movie ticket can provide 90 minutes of entertainment, a $60 computer game can easily provide 50-100 hours of entertainment. Free-to-play web based games make this math even more compelling, whether they be casual game portals like Pogo, virtual worlds like Gaia or massively multiplayer games like Runescape. The Web site with the highest amount of time spent per visitor in October was Pogo.com with 444 minutes/visitor. Number two was Yahoo, with just 291 minutes/visitor in the same period. Games in general, and free games in particular, can provide a lot of cheap thrills.

2. Trading real money for virtual goods

In Asia people have been paying real money for virtual goods for years. It is the primary business model for games and Internet companies in China and Korea, far more important that advertising. We’re starting to see similar behavior in the U.S., also led here by online games and social networks. On the back of the rise of social networks and games, 2009 will be the first real breakout year for this business model in the US.

To people who do not spend time on social networks, it seems crazy that people would pay real money to buy each other virtual gifts – pictures of things ranging from birthday cakes to hugging penguins – and then display them on their profile pages. But estimates peg Facebook’s digital gifts sales in the $35 million – 50 million range this year. As more human interaction moves online, these social tokens of appreciation move online in parallel.

In the same way, gamers are more than willing to buy virtual goods In 2007, Nexon made $30 million selling virtual goods to U.S. players of their games. These items either allow players extra powers in the game (e.g a bigger gun), or allow players to customize the way that their character looks (e.g. cool sunglasses). People want to win, and they want to look good doing it. Dozens of other games companies are now employing this model in the U.S.

Why would this recession be a time for virtual goods to take off in the U.S.? It actually has nothing to do with the economy, Rather, two new payment mechanisms are becoming available now that allow gamers, many young and without credit cards, to play these games to their full capacity. The first is that prepaid game cards are now being sold at retail, with Target leading the charge. The second is incentive marketing. If a player take an action (like signing up for a ring tone service, or completing a survey) the advertiser who benefits will fund the purchase of that players desired virtual goods. One virtual world company, Gaia, used to have three full time employees who did nothing but open envelopes of cash that their teen and ‘tween players sent them to buy virtual goods. Since rolling out their new payment mechanisms, their revenues have doubled and they no longer have to open envelopes full of pocket money.

Asia and Europe have led the US in the adoption of free to play games because they have had good alternative payment mechanisms in place for longer, including mobile payments and credits available for sale at internet cafes. Now the U.S. is ready to catch up.

3. Web 2.0 leaders pull further away from the pack

In a recession, when advertising budgets are cut, there is a flight to quality among advertisers. Size and “brand name” are good proxies for quality. Advertisers will want to buy advertising on big, well known websites. The big online media companies like Yahoo and AOL will benefit from this. However, they are already so big that they cannot escape the overall shrinkage of ad budgets.

On the other hand, many Web 2.0 companies, like Facebook and Digg, have build large user bases but have not yet built out their capacity to monetize their traffic. These companies will see the benefit of the advertiser flight to quality. However, as they are only now building out their sales forces, they will likely continue to see strong revenue growth in 2009.

4. Online ad prices continue to fall, alternatives help make up some of the ground

The Internet advertising market, like all markets, responds to changes in supply and demand. In the current recession, demand for advertising is likely to decrease. At the same time, supply of online inventory, page views, is continuing to increase. Social networks and other social media sites in particular are creating masses of new inventory. As a result, the price of online advertising will continue to fall in 2009.

Targeting may mitigate some of this fall. Better targeting is steadily improving the effectiveness of direct response advertising (the equivalent of TV infomercials). This targeting takes many forms, but all have demonstrated an ability to lift conversion rates over “run of network” advertising. As targeting technology improves, and as the data that publishers and networks collect about users increases in quantity and quality, we will see a better ability to match the right ad to the right person, and charge more for that ad.

5. Getting serious about monetizing non U.S. traffic

The U.S. led the way on the internet, and for a long time the U.S. dominated overall Internet usage. In the past couple of years this situation has changed. China passed the U.S. as the country with the most internet users this year. Top sites like Yahoo, MSN, Facebook and MySpace all have more users internationally than in the US. Serving an international user costs the same as serving a U.S. user, but making money from an international user is much harder. In 2009, I expect Internet companies to get serious about making money from their international traffic.

The US market represents about half of all online advertising, which is partly what makes monetizing international traffic so difficult. Building up direct ad sales teams (and networks) internationally will partially help to bridge the gap, but this will not be enough. As noted previously, in Asia direct monetization models (i.e. selling things directly to users) have proven to be a better business model than advertising. U.S. companies will need to understand and embrace the direct monetization models that have worked well overseas, principally mobile monetization, premium subscriptions models and digital goods models based on selling greater functionality, scarcity or status.

Silver linings to dark clouds

These trends will benefit some internet companies but disadvantage others. I hope that your company finds the right way to navigate these shifting shoals. Let me know if you agree or disagree with these predictions, or if there are other trends that you think I’ve missed.

Mobile Predictions For 2009 December 9, 2008

Posted by jseid in 2009, mobile, predictions.
6 comments

Despite the troubles in the economy, the mobile industry is as dynamic as it has ever been.  The changing landscape creates significant opportunities for entrepreneurs and should deliver exciting products and services to the consumer.

Here are our predictions for what’s to come in mobile in 2009:

1. The iPhone’s impact is not directly due to iPhone usage.

With all the buzz around the iPhone and its great stats, people might question this. However, I think 2009 will show that it’s not iPhone usage that will have the greatest impact on mobile but the wave of iPhone/appstore-like offerings being created by Apple’s competitors. Apple showed the device manfuacturers that sell the vast majority of the world’s phones how to rethink the phone from the ground up to make sense for data and apps and that will be the iPhone’s biggest impact on the industry in 2009.

A number of other large players like Google/HTC, RIM, Samsung, LG and Nokia are each coming to market with multiple offerings that have large high-res touch screens and in several important cases app stores that facilitate mobile content discovery and payments. The number of iPhone-like products by the end of 2009 should outnumber the iPhone. Despite the down economy and people watching their pocketbooks, expect the growth of these more expensive smart phones to be a real bright spot for the mobile industry. Choice and competition is a great thing for consumers.

2. 3G networks break.

Well, what else would you expect with all those iPhones and iPhone-like phones out there? These networks were designed for voice not for data and the stress placed on these networks with this new generation of phones will be significant. Areas that will continue to see innovation will include the access part of the network which will make use of intelligent smaller cells and which will leverage wifi where possible. The backhaul portion of the network will also be ripe for innovation. In a year where telecom spending is likely to go down, we would expect spending on key stress points like backhaul to continue to grow.

3. Mobile app/wap business models are put through the crucible.

There have been a number of mobile app/wap startups funded over the last few years and 2009 will be the crucible test for their business models. I can’t predict which business model will win but I can predict that the winners will be the companies that have the capability to rapidly evolve and test different business models in order to move down the learning curve as quickly as possible. Unlike in the web world, mobile startups will have to think creatively about their business models given the complex ecosystem of carriers and phone vendors and will also have to understand from day one how their business model maps to geographies outside of the US.

All this change will create a lot of opportunity for the right mobile startups.

2009 Cleantech Predictions December 3, 2008

Posted by lsvp in 2009, biofuel, China, Cleantech, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, energy storage, predictions, solar.
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19 comments

Lightspeed has invested across several cleantech areas, including solar (Stion), biofuels (LS9, Solazyme), clean coal (Coaltek), LED lighting (Exclara), and energy storage (Mobius Power). Here are some of our cleantech predictions for 2009 (see our prior year predictions here):

1. Cleantech funding will slow significantly, forcing startups to seek alternative growth strategies

The level of cleantech VC investment reached its highest levels ever in recent years. With the market downturn, however, many of the key players in the recent wave – private equity funds, hedge funds, project financiers, and debt providers – have slowed or halted their funding pace, and the IPO window is effectively closed. VC firms will continue to invest, but at a more modest pace.

As a result, we expect many startups to delay their timing for achieving commercial production. Startups will need to rethink their scale-up strategies and sacrifice growth in favor of reaching breakeven earlier. Hardest hit will be the companies that need to make significant capital expenditures to prepare for commercialization, but still have substantial technology and scale-up risk.

As companies find it more difficult to attract funding and drive down costs, expect some to seek more creative solutions. For example, biofuel startups will increasingly leverage underutilized production assets owned by distressed corn ethanol companies for commercial production capability. Meanwhile, expect large, established energy enterprises to play an increasingly vital role in helping to support startups as a development partner, funding source, customer, distribution partner or acquirer.

2. Companies will come under increased pressure to achieve competitive cost economics

With oil and energy prices falling significantly from last summer’s historical peaks, cleantech startups have stiffer requirements for the cost economics needed to compete with traditional energy sources. Companies with technologies that enable disruptive cost economics and can target higher-value market segments will be best positioned to stay competitive. For example, biofuel companies that can produce higher-value specialty chemicals can thrive even with oil at $40 per barrel. In solar, even with polysilicon prices falling due to the impending supply glut, high-efficiency thin-film solar panel providers will have the potential to exploit an intrinsic cost advantage. Conversely, companies that do not provide compelling cost economics will find it tough to contend.

The downturn has also made consumers and enterprises increasingly price sensitive and less willing to choose products at a price premium for the sake of “going green.” As such, sustainability-oriented green building products without an inherent cost advantage will be a tougher sell with more cost-conscious building owners.

3. Investor interest in energy storage, especially for automotive and grid-scale applications, to grow strongly

VCs will continue to invest in areas with large market opportunities, significant headroom for innovation, and more capital-efficient expansion models. We expect energy storage to be one of these areas. In the automotive sector, batteries with improved safety, performance, and cost parameters will be crucial to the broader adoption of electric vehicles (EV’s) and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEV’s). In the utility sector, the dramatic increase in distributed generation expected in the next decade from wind, solar, geothermal, and other sources will continue to adversely impact grid stability. We believe that economical grid-scale storage will be a critical part of the solution.

4. Government will play larger role in cleantech, as policymakers around the country increase their support

With passage of the solar investment tax credit and the Obama Administration’s stated support for a $100B+ energy plan, we expect the seeds of key U.S. energy policies for the next decade being planted in 2009. Although policy enactment may not happen in the coming year, expect topics like carbon cap-and-trade/taxation, national Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS), biofuel incentives, EV infrastructure, and grid-scale storage to be hotly debated. We expect that the federal government will move to formalize a venture capital-like arm to invest in promising cleantech startups, with particular emphasis on commercialization as opposed to research & development. State governments will continue to drive cleantech policy, with more states establishing or tightening RPS and RFS, reducing permitting requirements involved in consumer renewables adoption, and offering tax breaks for startups.

Importantly, policymakers at all levels will continue to consult the private sector to understand benefits and risks of emerging technologies that could benefit from regulatory support to avoid legislation that could potentially be detrimental to the cause (see Lightspeed’s presentation to California’s Lt. Governor and the Commission for Economic Development).

5. Cleantech comes of age in China

During the middle of last year, China passed the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). 300 million people in the country have no access to potable drinking water; over a million people each year die from air pollution-related disorders, with new coal-fired plants going into operation on a weekly basis.

The Chinese government has put its might behind increased support for cleantech, enabling viable technologies to achieve distribution more rapidly. After the Olympics ended, the national leadership passed the Circular Economy Law to stimulate cleantech spending through energy efficiency, water conservation, and tighter regulation of GHG emissions. Further, the government has committed to a renewable energy budget of ~$300 billion over the next 12 years, a ~15% renewables target by 2020, and a ~$200 billion environmental protection budget through 2010.

VCs have already responded to this building momentum, as local investment in cleantech rose from $550 million last year to an expected $720 million this year, according to Cleantech China Research. Sectors that look poised to attract VC investor attention in 2009 include wind, clean coal, waste-to-fuel technologies, and energy-efficient building materials.