How Pixar Screwed Up Cartoon Cars For a Generation of Kids

Jason Torchinsky · 12/26/11 10:45AM

Normally, I wouldn't want to bring up something of this gravity during the holidays, but I have to take a firm stand on an issue that's been bothering me for a long while. I've sat by long enough and did nothing while wrongs were committed, on greater and greater scales. But no more. Today I make my stand. Here goes:

Facebook's new value: $1.3 billion?

Owen Thomas · 12/15/08 05:40PM

With more than 120 million users, Mark Zuckerberg's social network continues to grow, kudzu-like. And yet it is worth far less today than the $15 billion it commanded a year ago. Why is that?

Meg Whitman, homophobe

Owen Thomas · 12/12/08 08:00PM

With her unofficial bid to be California's governor, Meg Whitman, the billionaire former CEO of eBay, is leaning hard to the right. Her support of a gay marriage ban could doom her campaign.

Did Facebook cause the New Depression?

Owen Thomas · 12/09/08 03:20PM

Want a scapegoat for the economic crisis? Mark Zuckerberg looks pretty good right now. Facebook's young CEO dreams of a world where we instantly know each others' emotions. To our peril, we're already pretty close.

Why Facebook wants to spam your News Feed

Owen Thomas · 12/01/08 12:00PM

Social networks have a lifecycle: They start with a small core of early adopters, swell as mainstream users get pulled in by their friends, and then see growth taper off as people get turned off by spam. That's why Friendster is forgotten and why MySpace is looking increasingly stagnant. The price for reaching an audience advertisers care about seems to be a site users can't stand. Facebook, however, isn't following the fashionable trend.

Why founders win

Owen Thomas · 11/18/08 02:20PM

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like to talk about their hopes of "changing the world." Yes, of course: Changing the world from one in which they are poor to one in which they are fabulously wealthy. The question in the air is whether the founders of companies do a better job at creating wealth, for themselves and their investors, than professional managers. With Yahoo announcing Jerry Yang's plans to step down as CEO, it would seem like a losing time for founders. But Yang is an exceptional case; he took his hands off the steering wheel when Yahoo had a mere five employees, and never really ran anything until he stepped in as CEO last June. Most founders of successful startups eagerly seize power, and have to be forcibly dislodged from the driver's seat. The best never let go. Just take a long-term look at the stock market, and you'll see why.

Why Elon Musk could be the next Steve Jobs

Owen Thomas · 11/17/08 03:00PM

When visionaries clash, whose vision do we believe? On newsstands this week, Newsweek's Dan Lyons savages Tesla Motors, the electric-car maker. Tesla was once the brightest hope of Silicon Valley's clean-transportation industry; now on its fourth CEO in less than two years, it's better known for manufacturing boardroom drama than actual vehicles. Lyons writes that Tesla's Roadster is a "classic Silicon Valley product — it's late and over budget, has gone through loads of redesigns, still has bugs and, at $109,000, costs more than originally planned. Company founder Martin Eberhard (left, at bottom) says that lead investor Elon Musk (left, at top), who recently installed himself as the company's fourth CEO, made costly changes to the car's design and is "a terrible CEO." Musk's retort: "Martin is the worst individual I've ever had the displeasure of working with."Eberhard and Musk have long feuded, even before Musk ousted Eberhard as Tesla's CEO. But I'd note that for once, they're not outright contradicting each other here. It's far more common for Musk to have a version of events that conflicts with everyone else's accounting. His history of events at PayPal, the electronic-payments startup he cofounded, seems to be shared only by him. And Musk has been telling everyone who will listen that SpaceX, his rocket startup, has a "Nasa contract to build the Space Shuttle replacement after 2010." If you ask Nasa administrators, they'll say that's more than a stretch of the truth. (In fact, SpaceX is competing for a contract, but it has only hit some of the milestones; Nasa is currently planning to rent out space on Russian rockets to supply the International Space Station, and a future supply contract for SpaceX is a possibility, not a certainty.) So Musk has a tenuous relationship with reality. Is this a handicap in his business? Apple CEO Steve Jobs is famous for his "reality distortion field" — a charisma that leads others to believe the most exaggerated claims, because the vision behind them is so compelling. Of course, Jobs actually has brought his outlandish vision to life four times: With the Apple II, the Mac, the iPod, and the iPhone. Musk has realized the Roadster, and SpaceX has managed, after several crashes, to launch one lone rocket. He's also got SolarCity, a startup which installs solar panels on roofs. If in 2011, we live in a shiny future where we drive Tesla cars powered with clean electricity from SolarCity panels, and SpaceX's Falcon1 rockets are supplying orbital space stations, then we will be living in a reality of Musk's making — much as Jobs envisioned the iPod in the dark days of October 2001, and then, three years later, saw them everywhere on the New York subway. There's another possibility, however, which would also make Musk like Steve Jobs — the Jobs of two decades ago, who was forced out of Apple by the CEO he hired. Tesla could go under, SpaceX could fail to win the Nasa contract, and SolarCity could get beaten down by rival cleantech startups. And then Musk, driving his Roadster on the lonely roads of Silicon Valley, would find himself facing a reality not constructed in his mind. An unpleasant thought, that. Far easier just to succeed.

Eric Schmidt and the YouTube election

Owen Thomas · 11/14/08 05:20PM

Is YouTube making Google a political player? The video-sharing site, with its stratospheric bandwidth bills and questionable new ad formats, may never pay Larry and Sergey back in cash for the $1.65 billion they shelled out to buy it in 2006. But it doesn't have to. YouTube, having conquered online video, is taking over political broadcasting. The conventional unwisdom in Manhattan and Washington, D.C., is that this election made YouTube. Pah! It's true that campaign videos spread faster than ever thanks to YouTube. But they made up a tiny fraction of clips and traffic on the site. Politicians owe YouTube a debt that Google is just starting to collect on — and hosting President Obama's 21st century fireside chats is just a down payment.Google has plenty of business in Washington these days, from the Federal Communications Commission to the Department of Justice. Convenient, then, that CEO Eric Schmidt endorsed Obama weeks before the election, joining his board of economic advisors and appearing in Obama's primetime infomercial. Schmidt doesn't need a government job — he's clearly volunteering to be America's CTO in his spare time. Schmidt is savvy enough to realize that YouTube's growing prominence as a media outlet could help the company become a larger political player — which is why the site sponsored two campaign debates. Traffic? Come on. YouTube hardly needs the help. Schmidt — who attended one debate with a mistress on his arm, like an old-school power broker — orchestrated the events to maximize Google's political influence. The outgoing administration has not been friendly to Google, whose management team tilts strongly to the left. The Department of Justice's threat to sue Google if it proceeded with a deal to sell search ads for Yahoo may have been, at least in part, politically motivated. Google mostly wants a free hand from Washington to cement its lead in online advertising — but it also wants help bullying telephone and cable companies into letting its services and ads flow unimpeded on high-speed broadband lines and cell phones, a cause it has dubbed "network neutrality." Network neutrality is an abstract issue. But YouTube, helpfully, makes it very concrete to politicians, who have long understood the power of the moving image to influence the public. It's easy to picture Google lobbyists pulling up a politician's YouTube videos, and asking them, "Now how would you feel if Verizon slowed down your videos? Wouldn't it be wrong if AT&T didn't let customers view them on their cell phones?" Even in its copyright enforcement, Google can club politicians. The McCain campaign complained about YouTube's takedown policy, which has a mandatory waiting period before videos whose rights are disputed can be reposted to the site. Will Democratic politicians — or any politician who votes the right way on network neutrality — find that a YouTube account manager is glad to make that kind of problem quietly go away? It's a symbiotic relationship, to be sure. Google helps politicians reach young voters on YouTube and hosts their videos for free. YouTube benefits from the free content and the traffic political videos generate; even if it doesn't sell ads directly on the pages, it's estimated that it could make $1 billion a year on search ads — and in that business, merely cementing YouTube's traffic lead helps Google make money. In that light, isn't there something that stinks about handing the president's weekly addresses to a single commercial outlet controlled by a political ally of the president? Obama's YouTube chats amount to a large, unspoken, behind-the-scenes government kickback. Every election has something dirty about it. And there's no question Google won this contest.

Billionaire Facebook investor's anti-immigrant heresy

Owen Thomas · 11/14/08 02:20PM

Insiders at Clarium Capital, the $5.3 billion hedge fund run by Facebook investor Peter Thiel, are buzzing about their boss's $1 million donation to NumbersUSA, an anti-immigrant group. The donation is an open secret within Clarium, and it has enraged several staff members who joined Clarium because they believed Thiel shared their libertarian ideals. When I asked Thiel if he'd made the donation, an underling passed on a nondenial saying the company didn't comment on "gossip and heresy." A typo — he meant to say "hearsay" — but a suggestive one. Thiel has fallen under the sway of Robertson "Rob" Morrow III, a Christian right-wing thinker who has personally donated to NumbersUSA, and persuaded Thiel to make his own, much larger donation.Morrow is a controversial figure within Clarium, a hedge fund Thiel founded after leaving PayPal, the payments company he cofounded and sold to eBay for $1.5 billion. Morrow was once chief investment officer at the San Francisco-based company, but was pushed out of Thiel's inner circle after he had a nervous breakdown on the trading floor. Morrow slowly worked his way back into Thiel's good graces, and was assigned to run the company's then-small New York office. Recently, his influence over Thiel and Clarium has grown. Earlier this year, Morrow wrote a paper called "The Bull Market in Politics." His thesis was that "government influence — over trade policy, social programs, decisions of war and peace — becomes much more important" to investors. One key policy area: immigration, where Morrow thinks there is a rising consensus for restrictions. A politically driven drop in immigration has broad economic implications, especially on the housing market; with less population growth, housing prices will continue to suffer for much longer than most anticipate. But Morrow is not merely forecasting the market. He has cajoled his influential boss to spend money to make his forecast a reality. A NumbersUSA spokesman called me to deny that Thiel had made a donation. But the money trail out of Clarium is clear, insiders say, and it would be a simple matter for Thiel to have arranged to make his donation through a third party like DonorsTrust, a conservative foundation through which charitable grants can be directed. The reason why Thiel would want his donation to be anonymous is simple: Even while he's betting against immigration with his hedge fund, he's making money off of immigrant-run startups in Silicon Valley. However Thiel is getting the money to NumbersUSA, it has specific goals: upgrading NumbersUSA's computer system; hiring a full-time fundraiser to solicit large donations from the wealthy; and hiring Luntz Maslansky Strategic Research to run focus groups on public attitudes toward immigration. So Thiel, like many wealthy sorts, is getting into politics. What's interesting about this is his shift from outspoken Libertarian. At PayPal, he had ambitions of using his payments startup to undermine illiberal economies and create a new world financial order. Many of his employees, first at PayPal and then at Clarium, were attracted by this powerful (if outlandish) vision. That he's now fallen under the sway of a right-wing Christian conservative is a bit crushing to the true believers Thiel attracted to his cause. Thiel once aimed to overturn the system. Now he just wants to work within it. As much as his anti-immigration views render him noxious to the Northern California mainstream, his turning away from an embrace of freedom make him an enemy to the rebellious thinkers he's hired.

Microsoft takes over Yahoo

Owen Thomas · 11/06/08 04:40PM

Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang publicly pines for another bid from Microsoft. On stage at the Web 2.0 Summit conference yesterday, he said, again, that he was open to talks. Microsoft has taken pains to say it's not interested. But really, besides corporate raider Carl Icahn, who cares? A new leadership team, all with lengthy Microsoft resumes, has taken over key parts of Yahoo.Joanne Bradford, a longtime sales chief at MSN who later headed up Microsoft's content operations, now runs U.S. sales. Jeff Dossett, after a protracted job dance with both Microsoft and Yahoo, just took over Yahoo's "audience" group, which oversees its media websites. And Eric Hadley, another longtime Microsoftie, has just gotten a job running marketing. The three all know each other well from MSN and form a tight-knit cabal. And one thing drove them from Microsoft to Yahoo: Microsoft's senseless obsession with Google. MSN has always been an oddball operation at Microsoft. Is it not, at its heart, a media company. That Google figured out a way to turn attracting an online audience and selling advertising into an algorithm infuriated Microsoft's leadership — but the thought that the Web might be a software business after all held a deep attraction to them. Google's strength is in search advertising. And search advertising is bought, while display advertising is sold. Keyword ads practically sell themselves, while banner ads require the careful cultivation of human links between Web publishers and advertisers. In their display-ads sales, Microsoft and Yahoo both took their eye off the ball, distracted by Google. Microsoft will remain distracted, possibly for all time. But Yahoo is beginning to rebuild an ad-sales operation badly wounded by Yahoo president Sue Decker's mishandling of sales chief Wenda Harris Millard. That's what Bradford, Dossett, and Hadley have figured out. If there's still a role for humans in the packaging of audiences for advertisers, it's going to be filled at Yahoo, not Microsoft. It is a chancy, contrarian bet; running up against both Google and Microsoft takes guts. But it's no coincidence that so many Microsoft executives are now at Yahoo.

Googler mom Esther Wojcicki's sideline job as Google publicist

Owen Thomas · 11/06/08 01:40PM

What about the children? Palo Alto High School teacher Esther "Woj" Wojcicki took time away from educating future reporters to write about America's teens for the Huffington Post. In the piece, she promotes a nonprofit letter-writing project sponsored by Google and touts the use of Google Docs. No surprise there: Woj, whose daughter Anne is married to Google cofounder Sergey Brin and whose daughter Susan is a Google executive, has been promoting Google's pet causes from the first. But only now, after Valleywag has twice pointed out Woj's failure to disclose family conflicts of interest, has she started to include a disclaimer. Too bad it's deceptive.Woj's new disclaimer reads:

The Facebook layoffs

Owen Thomas · 10/28/08 07:00PM

Mark Zuckerberg's college-spawned startup is supposed to hire its 1,000th employee sometime this year. I don't think that's going to happen. If Zuckerberg isn't talking about layoffs behind closed doors, one of his executives must be brave enough to bring it up. I don't think the company is going to issue pink slips. But I do think its headlong growth in employees will come crashing to a halt before the end of the year.Here's some back of the envelope math on Facebook's burn rate. Figure the company's operating expenses are divided roughly half in labor, half in operations like running its servers. Count $100,000 in salary per employee, and double that in benefits and other overhead; double that again to account for the company's non-labor costs. You end up with an annual cost structure of $400 million. Facebook's revenues for this year are projected to be $300 million to $350 million; if the company isn't already operating in the red, it's headed there fast. Microsoft's $240 million investment? Most of that is already gone towards buying servers — and it's not like Facebook can stop buying servers as usage of its site continues to boom. Publicly, Zuckerberg has talked about the company making growth its priority. But a $400 million a year ship can sink fast, especially if the advertising market faces a hard contraction and media buyers cut back on their more experimental ad buys. And none of Facebook's new ad formats have proven to be a breakout hit, as Google's AdWords was earlier this decade. That's why I think Facebook's braintrust is talking about whether they can afford to keep hiring — and whether they need to cull their existing ranks. Here's where Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the law-and-order type Zuckerberg hired from Google, comes in. She's already made hiring considerably more bureaucratic, instituting new requirements straight out of the Googleplex, like a 3.5 GPA from a top school. Getting strict on recruiting is just the start. Facebookers should expect to see more rules, rules, rules. And even the slightest violation will prove cause for firing — especially for employees who are within weeks of vesting their first batch of stock options, which only come after a year on the job. Sandberg's very savvy about keeping up appearances. Google thrived in part because, in the darkest days of the dotcom crash, from 2001 through 2003, it was the only company hiring. Until it bought DoubleClick, Google had never done a layoff. That's part of Google's image, and I'm sure Sandberg wants it to be part of Facebook's image, too. So we won't hear about a Facebook hiring freeze. We certainly won't hear about layoffs. Whatever happens will be quiet: Candidates won't get called back about jobs they applied for. Managers will find their hiring requests tied up in bureaucracy. And employees will quietly box up their things and go. The sad thing is that those Facebookers will think they screwed up. They won't even have the saving grace of a layoff — the corporate kiss-off that says, "Hey, kid, chin up — it's not you, it's me." A layoff would be the honest thing. But it's the one cost-cutting move Facebook can't afford.

The layoff lie

Owen Thomas · 10/27/08 02:20PM

A wave of layoffs is sweeping startupland. But why? "Today is my last day at Revision3," writes Damon Berger, one of the victims, in a mass email. "Due to budgetary cutbacks that are a direct result of the economic meltdown, I will no longer be employed at the company." Revision3, an online-video startup, has slashed five Web-video shows from its lineup, and with it some unknown number of employees. But are we to believe that collateralized debt obligations killed "Internet Superstar"? Of course not.Yes, online advertising is headed for a slowdown — but signs of problems were present in the market well before Wall Street went into crisis. An explosion of usage had created a supply of space for ads that far outpaced marketers' demand. A recession will further temper demand. Berger, and countless like him at ad-supported enterprises, would have ended up on the street regardless. (Which is a pity, since I've met Berger, and he strikes me as personable, clever, and eminently employable elsewhere.) Revision3, best known as the home of Digg founder Kevin Rose's beer-chugging Diggnation podcast, has always been the kind of lovably goofy startup one hopes does well despite itself. Anyone who suffered through "Internet Superstar" knew the show was going down. It failed on the merits, not because of distant economic forces beyond anyone's control. To paraphrase Tolstoy: Successful startups are all alike. But every unsuccessful startup is unsuccessful in its own way. And so with all the startups whose managers have jumped on the firebus. If they had run their businesses efficiently, they wouldn't have needed to fire anyone. They are laying people off now not because of an economic imperative, but because they have a convenient excuse to cover their mistakes. Revision3 should always have concentrated on its main shows, and found cheap ways to experiment with new shows, as it's doing now. Helium.com should have figured out that there's not much money in user-generated content before laying off a third of its 110 employees. And Seesmic? Well, Seesmic should never have launched at all, good economy or bad. I'm declaring the layoff window shut. Big companies lay people off because of economic conditions; startups lay people off because their managers have fundamentally misjudged some aspect of their business. Any startup CEO who lays people off, from here on out, should be held accountable for his own mistakes. Blaming the economy for your cuts? So mid-October 2008.

Sequoia calls off the boom

Owen Thomas · 10/08/08 11:00PM

The good times are over, the partners of Sequoia Capital are telling the entrepreneurs they fund. Quite literally: They sent a summons to a summit meeting with a picture of a gravestone with the writing "R.I.P. Good Times," rival venture capitalist Om Malik reports. There, partners including Michael Moritz and Doug Leone told CEOs of companies in their portfolio that they should steel themselves for a prolonged downturn, make their businesses self-sustainable, and cut all unnecessary costs.I would be more impressed if Sequoia hadn't pulled this act before when the last bubble burst. True, they called the movement of the market. But it's conventional wisdom today that the economy is tanking. But what does the economy have to do with the startups Sequoia funds? The whole point of venture capital is to nurture companies that need capital. Part of the art of investing in startups is knowing when to push them out of the nest. Templated cost-cutting advice, applied across Sequoia's portfolio, is hardly a value-add. And it's not clear how this was bad advice a year ago. Sequoia's portfolio should have been keeping a close eye on costs then as now. The IPO market is definitely ailing now, but it's hardly been healthy over the last few years. Large acquisitions have been scant since MySpace and YouTube got bought. The chaos on Wall Street doesn't change the bleak outlook for exiting startup investments profitably that existed beforehand. So what's really going on here? Consider two of the companies that heard Sequoia's speeches last time around: PayPal and Google. They both spent and grew aggressively in the face of a local recession. They both managed to IPO when few tech companies were going public. And they both delivered handsome profits to Sequoia. I'm just guessing at Moritz's game, but here's what I suspect is going through his head: He could have delivered a cost-cutting sermon a year ago, true. But his entrepreneurs are far more likely to listen to it now. And the rest of Silicon Valley is listening, too. He's made his bit of noise, knowing full well word would leak out, and put a scare in all his competitors. How convenient that this scare-tactics summit was held just a month after Sequoia raised $1.7 billion in new funds. While everyone else is hunkering down, Sequoia will cull the weaklings from its portfolio, double down on the winners — and profit before anyone realizes the good times are back. Well played, Michael, well played.

Why Facebook is foundering

Owen Thomas · 10/07/08 02:00PM

The great hope of the Valley, the startup everyone thought was the next Google, the company whose IPO might restart the stock-market gold rush for everyone, is not well. Why? Look to its founder. Mark Zuckerberg is mismanaging his creation's transition to greatness. In Facebook's own parlance, the company's plight is "complicated." It will take in $300 million to $350 million in revenue this year, thanks in part to a lucrative ad deal with Microsoft. But its $15 billion valuation is premised on a far brighter future — a future that may never materialize. The biggest symptom of Facebook's ailment is the flight of technical talent. In the Valley, success attracts smart people, who attract other smart people. Yes, they're after money, too, but having brilliant coworkers counts for a lot. These great minds bond and form, yes, a sort of social network of their own. When they leave, the network frays, weakening the company's ability to attract new talent.That's why, for days before it was announced, top executives at Facebook desperately hid technical lead Dustin Moskovitz's plans to leave. They dithered as Mark Zuckerberg tried to persuade his cofounder and college roommate to stay, and others, led by COO Sheryl Sandberg, concocted a plan to spin his departure. That spin has now been dutifully printed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal: Facebook's changes are the "type of evolution you see among young growing companies and specifically young growing companies in Silicon Valley," company flack Larry Yu told the paper. Sandberg, who closely directs the company's PR, would have us think that the uproar that has taken place at the social network since her arrival is a healthy evolution. It is not. The internal politicking she has introduced to the company is destructive, and has sent many of the company's best and brightest fleeing. The list of the departed includes data guru Jeff Hammerbacher, product VP Matt Cohler, platform director Ben Ling, and most recently, Justin Rosenstein, a top engineer who's leaving with Moskovitz. Operations VP Jonathan Heiliger may be next. The defections all hurt. But most of the blame lies with Zuckerberg himself. Zuckerberg has always styled himself as the company's "founder," relegating the likes of Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, now Barack Obama's Web campaign director, to "cofounder" status. Never mind that this distinction doesn't exist in English; those who start a company are all equally founders. Zuckerberg clearly considers himself first among equals; he once referred to Moskovitz as "disposable" and a "soldier." The former Harvard roommates patched over those insults, and Zuckerberg said he will rely on Moskovitz's counsel even after his departure. If Moskovitz really thought he could guide Facebook's evolution, he would have stayed at the company, right? Zuckerberg has a history of churning through confidants. Napster cofounder Sean Parker helped establish Facebook in Silicon Valley as its president, only to be disappeared from the company. Former COO Owen Van Natta was in favor, then out. Sandberg had his ear for a while, but may be losing it. Lately, I hear he favors Christopher Cox, the twentysomething recent Stanford grad he recently tapped as the company's director of product. We'll see how long he stays by Zuckerberg's side. This fickleness may be predictable from a 24-year-old. But it's fundamentally bad for the company. Yahoo thrived, in its early days, on the partnership between CEO Tim Koogle and founders Jerry Yang and Dave Filo. Google's triumvirate of its cofounders and CEO Eric Schmidt improved on that management form; the troika lends the company some stability by making sure decisions at the top are never unilateral. Zuckerberg's insistence on the "founder" title suggests that he always planned to rule the company alone. It's a bad plan. His instincts on what kind of website will attract a 100 million users have been spot-on. But he has no business sense. At one point during the Facebook redesign process, he suggested getting rid of advertising altogether, having grown disillusioned with both old-style banner ads and the company's experiments with targeting ads to users' behavior. Will Zuck ever find an equal partner, a sounding board who can help him turn Facebook into the large, ongoing concern he envisions? Dustin Moskovitz may not have been the right person. Nor, it seems, is Sheryl Sandberg. Yet to staunch the bleeding of Facebook's technical talent, Zuckerberg will have to find someone to ground him — someone for whom he has enduring respect, who can moderate his worst impulses. Without it, there will be one word describing what's going to happen to Facebook: "founder."

Why is Google afraid of links?

Paul Boutin · 10/03/08 11:40AM

Google's official advice for boosting a website's presence in Google search results has been the same for years: "Have other relevant sites link to yours.” The search engine's original PageRank formula was based entirely on which pages link to which other pages — a mathematical analogy to real-world reputations. But Google has removed its original rule from the latest revision of its Webmaster Guidelines. Why?Brian Ussery, who noted the change on his blog, is a professional search-engine optimization (SEO) consultant — he helps website owners raise their Google rank. Ussery thinks Google has "a renewed emphasis on rooting out paid links passing PageRank and/or low quality links." Years ago, site marketers realized that they could simply pay "relevant" sites — say, the site that comes up first for "Pacific Heights real estate" — to link to their own sites, boosting their own rank in Google results. When Google employees said, "Have other relevant sites link to yours," they meant "build a site that people who run other relevant sites will consider worth linking to." What they didn't mean was "pay them to link to your crummy site." As Ussery implies, that's pretty much how everyone does business on the Internet now. Google's graph of all the Web's links, once an elegant directory of reputation, has been corrupted by payola. What does Google want? Their guidelines should spell it out: Dear Webmasters, please stop spending your budget buying links. Instead, buy our ads.

Buy food and guns — but not the crisis hype

Owen Thomas · 10/01/08 04:20PM

Jeremy Philips, News Corp.'s Internet-savvy executive wunderkind, has been going around telling anyone who will listen, "Buy food and guns." Some people can't tell if Philips (shown here, right), is kidding; those who take him seriously interpret it as a wry shorthand for hunkering down and bracing for a long economic downturn. It's naive to think that the meltdown of the investment-banking sector won't have an effect on Silicon Valley. But not in the way most people think.Wall Street is currently in a bubble of panic. The Valley is currently in a bubble of denial. Neither zone approaches reality. Members of the National Bureau of Economic Research — the only official arbiter of such matters — can't even agree if we're in a recession yet. "It's really hard to say if we're in a recession, because different indicators point in different directions," said Jeffrey Frankel, a Harvard professor and a member of the NBER's recession-calling commitee. That technical measure of recession ignores the reality on the ground: Home prices continue to slump, gas prices are pinching consumers' pocketbook, and advertisers are aggressively cutting back budgets, even online. Layoffs are grabbing headlines. But does this really affect the Web startups which so enchant the blogosphere's imagination? Schadenfreude demands that these tiny companies shutter their doors — or if they don't have the decency to close up shop, they should act suitably chastened by the cold economic winds blowing. There's a lot of contradictory advice being handed out: Rely on angel investors! Don't rely on angel investors! My advice: Don't rely on journalists and bloggers for advice on how to run your business. One might think Valleywag, which eagerly chronicles the mishaps of misconceived startups, would cheer on the notion of a lot of startups starving to death because of an economic downturn. Far from it! Better that they choke on their own vomit — that excess and lack of self-discipline kill them, rather than factors outside their control. Serious entrepreneurs should be tightly controlling their spending. But that is as true now as it was a year ago, and a decade ago. Retaining pricey PR firms, throwing lavish parties, hiring executives from Fortune 500 companies at mid-six-figure salaries — that can wait until the company turns a profit. If your startup is dependent on a bubbly economic cycle, then it's not being run like a startup. By all means, those who were never meant to be entrepreneurs in the first place, who lack any real ideas of their own, or any interest in making money rather than spending someone else's, should take this occasion to make a graceful exit from the scene. Six months ago, closing your startup would have seemed cowardly if not insane; now, everyone will nod at your wisdom. That brings me to the opportunists — the likes of Marc Andreessen, who has been preaching the notion of a coming "nuclear winter" for some time, and Jason Calacanis, who recently wrote about a looming "startup depression." Were I more impressed with their current startups, I'd nod alongside. But Andreessen's Ning is an unimpressive social-network builder; Mahalo, a gussied-up replica of Yahoo's 1994-era Web directory. Frustratingly for some observers, they have raised enough money that neither company will run out of funds for at least a year. (No one sincerely believes Calacanis when he says he has enough money to run the company for four years, do they?) If their flimsy business models remain unchallenged, their survival is all the more likely. So when Andreessen and Calacanis talk doom and gloom, what I'm really hearing is: "Please don't raise money for a better idea than mine — I can't take the competition." What history tells us, actually, is that the best companies are started in times like this. The last wave of truly innovative Web 2.0 companies — Flickr, Del.icio.us, Last.fm, Facebook — started at a time when no one particularly believed in their potential. Many people would benefit from a climate of fear: Venture capitalists, who might get larger pieces of startups; employers, who might hire talent more cheaply; and corporate dealmakers, like Jeremy Philips of News Corp., who might acquire companies less expensively. But the biggest reason to ignore Philips' fearmongering, in particular? He's not taking his own advice. Rumor has it that, instead of food and guns, he is acquiring a piece of Manhattan real estate. And from what we hear, it is rather too glossy a place to serve as a warehouse for rations and ammo. (Photo by Gawker Media)

Did Kevin Rose cash out?

Owen Thomas · 09/25/08 10:00AM

The whispers have started: How much money did Kevin Rose make personally by selling shares in Digg's latest round of VC funding? The talk that Rose has sold shares is driven by equal parts envy and admiration. To understand the reaction, it helps to realize that the notion of an entrepreneur selling his own shares directly to investors before a public offering — getting out of the company just as other investors were getting in — used to be taboo in Silicon Valley. But that was before Wall Street's IPO machine broke down, and before merger activity dried up. Rose is at the vanguard of a seismic shift in how the Valley pays off its entrepreneurs.Rose, whose stake in Digg was famously estimated by BusinessWeek as worth $60 million, may be a unique case. More driven entrepreneurs must be frustrated by Rose, the fun-loving rock climber, on-screen beer drinker, and legendary lothario. His company's rise has seemed effortlessly successful, driven more by the former TV host's fan following than Digg's innovations. But Rose has gotten good business advice, chiefly from Digg CEO Jay Adelson, a longtime friend. Adelson feels he gave up too much control to investors at his previous company, Equinix; he strove to protect Rose from the same fate, an effort which Sarah Lacy chronicles in her recent book, Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good. As a result, Rose still holds a substantial stake in Digg. Rose is already believed to have taken $1 million in a previous financing. It's not clear how much he's taken in this round, if any — but it stretches credulity to think he hasn't cashed out to some extent. Here's why: Normally, a company raising $28.7 million in a third round of financing, as Digg just did, would be giving up a substantial chunk to outside investors. But when the founder controls as much as Rose does, the math doesn't work. Former Digg engineer Owen Byrne, who complains that he hasn't had access to Digg's financials in some time, speculates that the round involved massive dilution — the reduction in value suffered by existing shareholders when new shares are issued. But Byrne has this exactly wrong: Allowing the VCs to put in enough money to make the investment worth their time, at a high valuation, would require substantial dilution, which would disadvantage employees and early investors. Much simpler to transfer shares directly from one large shareholder — Rose — to another. What's the effect? Already, employees at Facebook have been agitating to sell their shares, and the company is creating an internal market to let them do so. Rose, as another high-profile example, will put further pressure on startups' management to let their workers cash out. This seems dangerous: Digg, with its high traffic and Microsoft ad deal, has achieved some success — but it's hard to envision it lasting long as an independent concern. What will the boards of even less developed startups tell their founders, when they want to sell, too — that they're just not as cool as Kevin Rose?

3 ways Facebook could impress Madison Avenue

Nicholas Carlson · 09/24/08 05:00PM

NEW YORK — Facebook is making a huge push during Advertising Week, an industrywide series of events for media buyers and publishers taking place now. Mark Zuckerberg's marketing minions bought a full-page ad in the program; sponsored sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings; and put Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg on a panel. They're throwing a party Thursday night; Bob Marley's kid, Ziggy Marley, will be the entertainment. "We're finally sponsoring something!" I overhead one Facebook employee gush to another on Monday. It's all a big effort to reintroduce Facebook to the New York ad agencies after Zuckerberg botched last year's first try.Judging by Sandberg's panel appearence Monday, Facebook particularly wants to push its new Engagement Ads — the ones which allow users to comment on advertiser's banners. Yesterday, I sat down with a top executive from one of the major interactive agencies and asked him what he made of Facebook's showy efforts. Engagement Ads? "Eh, those aren't what I want," he said. Then he suggested three things Facebook needs to do right now to win Madison Avenue's money faster than a week's worth of sessions, panels and Ziggy Marley parties ever could. Build a toll booth. Everyone knows banner ads don't do it for big-budget advertisers anymore— not even ones that allow users to comment on them and share with their friends, like Facebook's new ads. Instead of creating gimmicky features that users don't want, Facebook needs to come up with ways for advertisers to be seen as providing new functionality on Facebook itself. By way of analogy, my source told me to imagine American Express sponsoring a normally congested toll road for a day. Drivers approaching the toll booths would see them empty and maybe billboard that read: "No toll today. Drive on through and see what it's like to be an American Express cardholder." That's the kind of branded experiences Facebook needs to create for users and advertisers, my source told me. Not gimmicky ones like asking users to design Mazda's new cars or come up with new Ben and Jerry's flavors. Facebook should encourage users to feel like a site improvement was brought to them by a brand. Maybe Facebook's Video application should have been sponsored by Sony's CyberShot line, for example. The challenge: Facebook's site developers work separately from the group which comes up with ad products, a divide Facebook needs to erase. Facebook needs to stop imagining it will ever reach Google's size. One reason Facebook hasn't come up with these kinds of advertising arrangements already is that they require lots of creativity, planning and customization. They're one-offs, and Mark Zuckerberg can't simply program a computer to sell them over and over. It's a terrifying reality for Facebook because its investors put money into it expecting it would become the next Google, which is an automated moneymaking machine. (Only 3,000 out of its 18,000 employees are required to run its advertising operations.) The sooner Facebook management and its investors realize that the company will not be the next Google — which, let's face it, lucked into a ridiculously simple way of making money — the sooner it can take advantage of its massive, desirable user base. Zuckerberg and Sandberg need to hire Madison Avenue insiders. My source says Madison Avenue avoids spending money on MySpace because no one in New York knows its ad salespeople. Facebook needs to put Madison Avenue insiders in positions where they have Mark Zuckerberg's ear. For example: Zuckerberg could have used someone with advertising experience to challenge him with the baby-name test before the company went forward with its Beacon ads. The baby-name test? "You know," he said, "The one where you take the name and think of all the terrible things it rhymes with and then decide if you still like it."