The Internet Is Alive And Well (As An Investment)

James Altucher penned a column in today's WSJ titled The Internet Is Dead (As An Investment). James is a fund manager and well read columnist on investing and he is entitled to his opinion. He puts his money where his mouth is. But so do I and since we continue to invest heavily in the Internet, I thought I'd take the opposite side of this debate.

We (my partners and I at Union Square Ventures) think the Internet is one of those transformative technologies that changes everything. We see it like the industrial revolution or the invention of the printing press. It is a huge game changer. The Internet has been a commercial technology for about fifteen years now. And we are beginning to see the impact of it on everything around us. The industrial revolution and the Renaissance before it lasted a century or more. It takes a long time for such fundamental changes to work their way through the system and produce a new "normal".

Periods of great change produce fantastic investment opportunities and also destroy stable predictable businesses. Investors have the choice to take a chance on the new opportunities, stick with the stable predictable businesses, or sit on the sidelines. I prefer to do the former.

James says:

Nobody can figure out a business model.

Time Warner
would rather keep their legacy old-media businesses like People
magazine than hold onto one of the biggest Internet companies out
there, AOL. And News Corp. is shaking up its MySpace business as it figures out its next steps. (News Corp. owns Dow Jones, publisher of this newswire.) Microsoft has spent billions on Internet strategy without a dime of profit.

These are the "stable predictable businesses" that might be destroyed by the changing dynamic. I am not saying they will be. But they could be. The fact that Time Warner is selling AOL and holding on to magazines doesn't convince me that it is going to be a long term survivor. AOL itself is a business that has been negatively impacted by the Internet. AOL was never a pure Internet business. It was a dial-up access business connected to a proprietary online service.

And James goes on to say:

even Google can't seem to find any other business model other than the
one they stumbled into when they bought Applied Semantics in 2001 that
had a little piece of software called AdSense. And the new guys:
Twitter and Facebook are still scrambling for profits despite
blistering usage growth.

I'll leave Twitter out of this because it is too close for comfort. But Google can easily monetize its huge and growing apps business (which is a huge threat to Microsoft) and also its local franchise. Who doesn't use Google Maps these days? And Facebook is going to produce $550mm in revenues this year, is EBITDA profitable, and has a self serve ad system that is growing like weeds and giving local advertisers the best local targeting around right now.

And what about Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist? And international businesses like Baidu, Lastminute, Vente-Privee, Tencent, and Sohu? There are easily a dozen and probably two dozen worldwide Internet businesses that investors should own today and for the long haul.

I expect that number will grow over the next couple decades to include hundreds of large global Internet businesses that investors can own and make money with. Yes, barriers to entry on the Internet are low and there are no regulated monopolies that James likes to own. But network effects, data leverage, and scale are huge economic advantages online and if you look for businesses that have them, you can and will make a lot of money as the Internet revolution changes business, society, and the world around us. I think you have no other choice other than keeping your money under your mattress.

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