"My engineers say, 'We're normal people too.' And then I have to have a conversation with them about why they're not." — Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, speaking at MIT's EmTech conference about her workers' lack of a feel for what interests the social-network tool's users.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — "That is not my presentation, although it would be very sexy if it were," said Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, as she took the stage at MIT's EmTech conference here, with someone else's Windows desktop blown up on a screen behind her. Alas, her presentation, a canned version of Ning's stump speech, was not sexy. Bianchini routinely talks up Ning, a set of tools for developing customized social networks, as if it were a platform, and takes audiences through a tiresome parade of the free websites created by her customers. MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn are "walled gardens," she says — techspeak for an online service whose contents are tightly controlled by its owner. But listening to Bianchini, I couldn't help thinking that "walled garden" is code for "an idea I wished I'd come up with."
Marc Andreessen's Ning is a platform for thousands of social networks. Mick Balaban and Spencer Forman's WidgetLaboratory builds and sells add-ons for operators of those social sites. Or did, until August 22. That's when Ning general counsel Robert Ghoorah wrote Forman to say that WidgetLaboratory would be booted from the site for breaking its rules. The charge: something about how their widgets "unduly degraded" the rest of Ning. Now, Forman's made that email — as well as 14 others between Forman, Ghoorah, and Ning CEO Gina Bianchini — available online. Trust us, you don't want to read them all. Here's the soap opera minus the froth:
Few people outside Silicon Valley have heard of Roelof Botha. But the former CFO of PayPal is famous here. His two claims to fame: negotiating that company's $1.5 billion sale to eBay, and later, as a partner at Sequoia Capital, investing in YouTube and quickly flipping the startup to Google for $1.65 billion. Is it a coincidence that that figure is 10 percent higher than his PayPal score? Few insiders think so. Botha gets four pages in Sarah Lacy's Once You're Lucky, Twice You're Good — more than Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Other figures who appear on the second page of her Web 2.0 book's index: John Battelle, Ning CEO Gina Bianchini, Facebook board member Jim Breyer, blog blowhard Jason Calacanis, and YouTube cofounder Steve Chen, whom Botha made quite wealthy.
Here's how things usually work: Have a major outage, then fire your operations guy. At Marc Andreessen's Ning, the social-network Web host best known for its porn sites, things run a bit differently. On Monday, CEO Gina Bianchini fired VP of operations Alexei Rodriguez. On Wednesday, the company saw all of Ning's networks go offline. We hear Rodriguez failed to deliver a promised upgrade to Ning's systems that would have avoided the problem; the outage was coincidental but almost inevitable, given Rodriguez's omission. The larger problem for Ning: No one seems to care that it was down. When you offer porn and still no one complains that they can't get to it, you have a problem which goes much deeper than database configurations.
Here's what you really need to know about Ning, according to Fast Company writer Adam Penenberg. Its chairman, Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen, has an egg-shaped head. Its CEO, Gina Bianchini, who posed for Fast Company's cover in a tank top, is a "hottie." And Ning, a provider of websites for niche social networks, is poised to hit "critical mass" and "no one can stop it." Two out of those three statements were factchecked.
Newsweek, from 3,000 miles away, bills TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington's parties as "harder to get into than Studio 54 in its heyday." So much for the periodical's vaunted factchecking: I waltzed right in. And the scene? Last Friday's TechCrunch9 was, at heart, the same meet-and-greet that takes place several times a week somewhere between San Francisco and San Jose. Except on steroids. A reported 900 people showed up on the Sand Hill Road patio of August Capital to schmooze, deal, and — oh, yes — sucking up to Arrington in the hopes of a mention on his site.
Sun Valley, the quiet Idaho ski resort town, is about to get a charge from Silicon Valley. Allen & Co., the New York investment bank, has been holding an exclusive conference there for 25 years, but until recently, the invite list has been limited to old-media moguls. On the invite list for this year's conference, which kicks off tonight: Jay Adelson, CEO of Digg, the social-news website, which he cofounded with Kevin Rose. Here's why we think Adelson's on the list — and who else might show up.
After impressing almost no one for so, so long, Ning has relaunched and reclaimed the hearts and minds of techbloggers. Ning allows the free construction of Facebookesque social networks, customizable with a variety of content and content sources. Construction tools are dead easy, using a drag-and-drop layout similar to Typepad. Ning — largely funded by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen and cofounded by Web 2.0 hottie Gina Bianchini — is banking on the contextual ad market to support the site (though subscribers can sell their own ads by forking over a few bucks). Fortunately for nostalgia's sake, some of Ning's early triumphs remain intact — for example, Who Is a Bigger Douche.