California Calling

I spent the past two weeks in the Bay Area. I am happy to report that the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well. I mostly met new startups that were just getting off the ground and was fascinated by the passion, intelligence and vision of all the entrepreneurs I met.

Some of the interesting entrepreneurs I met include Rob Lord and Nivi. Rob Lord is a serial entrepreneur and visionary whom you may remember for creating Winamp – the wildly successful media player bought by AOL during the bubble days. Rob is now the founder of Songbird (www.songbirdnest.com) – the ultimate integrated browser/media player with lots interesting features. Nivi, while officially an EIR at Bessemer (www.bvp.com), is also a passionate entrepreneur helping out with business development and hiring at Songbird.

I was also very impressed by Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp (www.yelp.com). A former Paypal employee, he had the vision to create an online user generated Yellow Pages / City Guide killer. What is most intriguing is that he seems to have found the secret sauce to provide enough social currency and value to the reviewers so that they willingly contribute and create a site that feels much more authentic and lively than CitySearch – in addition to being more exhaustive (e.g.; covering doctors). He just launched New York and I expect him to continue growing rapidly. Kudos to my friend Jeremy Levine from Bessemer for boldly investing early on!

I also want to mention Naval Ravikant who both writes an iconoclastic amazing blog on entrepreneurship (www.startupboy.com) and is the founder of Vast (www.vast.com). Naval is clearly a subject matter expert on the auction and classified space and I look forward to Vast’s release in a few weeks.

Last but not least, I want to commend my good friend and fellow Princeton and McKinsey alum, Dan Rosenthal, for joining Mayfield (www.mayfield.com) as a principal. I can now be assured of funding for all my future startups 🙂

Sometimes it pays to be lucky!

As you might have read in my post on “The Power of Introspection and Detached Analysis” after I sold Aucland I was involved with three companies in France:

For the first two I wrote the business plan, helped fund raise, managed the site redesign and spent countless hours with the management team refining the model and figuring out the business. For Cityvox, I was somewhat less active but helped think through the business model and strategic options.

I obviously liked the business, the management teams and helped get them off the ground; however, when I started Zingy I stopped being active. By this I don’t mean I just decreased my level of involvement; I completely stopped it. I did not have time to talk to the management, participate on board meetings or anything. It got to the point that I forgot I had those equity stakes – I essentially assumed my investments had died with the dotcom crash.

You can imagine my (extremely pleasant) surprise when I learned today that MilleMercis had gone public on Alternext, the French stock market for small cap companies and had a 60 million euro valuation! I love watching the stock on Boursorama, the largest French financial information site.

MilleMercis inspired me to check how my other companies were doing. I am very happy to report that 2xmoinscher is doing very well – growing rapidly and very profitable despite competition by Priceminister, a larger player in the same space, eBay and Amazon. In fact 2xmoinscher just turned down a buy out offer at over 10 times my original investment. As for Cityvox, it is profitable and growing, has reinvented itself when it needed to and is poised to grow when the local search marketing market finally takes off.

My Chinese Internet stocks are also doing extremely well so I guess I am currently batting 1.00 in Internet investments. Sometimes it pays to be lucky!

Let’s hope the luck continues with the next batch of startups! In the meantime feel free to contact me if you want to buy 2xmoinscher or Cityvox at a huge premium 🙂

In Praise of Premium Services

In this Web 2.0 world free services have been all the rage – from social networking to photo sharing to social bookmarking, all the sites seem to be free and ad funded.

I don’t doubt the relevance and current and even continuing successes of these sites. Contextually relevant text ads have proven extremely successful and even less lucrative ads types can be very profitable if you can aggregate enough traffic (e.g.; MySpace).

The point I am making is that there is a market for premium services. In certain markets, charging improves quality. Listing fees decrease the amount of “junk” items on eBay. By charging, Match eliminates all the people who think finding the right date is not worth $24.95 per month. More importantly, there are many markets where charging allows the sites to provide a much improved quality of service.

The market that provides the best example of this might be the photo and video hosting and backup space. The free market is divided into two types of players:

  • Photo Printing sites such as Snapfish, Kodak Gallery and Shutterfly
  • Photo Community Sites such as Flickr, Fotolog, Pbase and Fotki

In both categories the various sites work relatively well at their primary purpose. However, both have their flaws. In the photo printing sites, they downgrade the quality of your pictures, it’s difficult to upload thousands of pictures, they don’t support video, and worst of all they delete your pictures if you don’t print. The photo community sites offer limited storage, poor customer service, limited support for video, downgrade the quality of your pictures and pictures are shared with the community as opposed to being only for you, your friends and family.

In this market a number of premium services have emerged. The one that impressed me the most is Phanfare. They charge $6.95 per month or $54.95 per year or $299.95 for a lifetime membership and you get:

  • Unlimited storage
  • Video support
  • Customer service that gets back to you within a day 
  • The ability to easily upload thousands of pictures
  • Easy to use
  • Multi-lingual support
  • Dedicated site with a simple URL (yourname.phanfare.com)
  • Great photo hosting for eBay and blogs
  • No ads

It strikes me that at those prices – a little more than your daily price for a latte for a month of service – there should be a premium market for the service even when the competition is free. The hundred million dollar question is how big is the premium market? While we try to answer the question, you can watch my pictures at http://albums.phanfare.com/fabrice 🙂

P.S. For full disclosure and because I put my money where my mouth is, I am a small investor in Phanfare.