Posts from Web/Tech

Flashback: The Lycos NYC Office in 1995

I was taking the subway uptown yesterday afternoon and as I stepped out of the train I thought I saw the word Lycos on the advertisement on the station wall. Upon closer observation, it was not an advertisement for Lycos, but by then I was already thinking about my visit to the Lycos NYC office in 1995 when I first met Jerry Colonna. It was in the building that sits on the north end of Union Square in a dumpy office with the name Point Communications on the door. Point was a web directory (ie at Yahoo competitor) that Lycos had bought in 1995. Jerry told me that Point was driving a lot of the traffic on the Lycos network and I asked him where they hosted it. He pointed to a closet with a PC sitting on the floor with the back opened and a bunch of wires sticking out. “It runs on that thing”, he said. I thought to myself that one of the top trafficked websites on the entire Internet was running in a closet. That was a different time.

Lycos was a web search engine created at Carnegie Mellon that was turned into a business by the Internet holding company CMGI in 1994/1995. Jerry was working for CMGI at the time I met him and CMGI was quickly assembling a portfolio of Internet assets around the Lycos brand to rival Yahoo. CMGI took Lycos public in 1996 and, according to Wikipedia, in 1999 Lycos was the most visited Internet destination.

But easy come, easy go and Lycos was sold to Terra Networks in May 2000, the first in a series of sales to international owners that led to slow and steady decline of the brand.

But back in 1995, Lycos was in the thick of it. It was the east coast rival to Yahoo, which was the leading Internet brand. If you were selling your website (that’s what you did back then), you shopped it to Yahoo and Lycos. And Jerry was right in the middle of all of that. I was thinking of leaving and starting a VC firm to invest exclusively in Internet businesses (ie websites). At that first meeting, I thought Jerry would be a great partner to do that with. And, after a series of meetings, that’s exactly what we did. But that’s another story, longer, and even more interesting.

We’ve come a long way in 20 years. Google eclipsed all of these “web 1.0” properties as search became the dominant way users accessed the web. Facebook showed that the web was going to be a social experience a few years later. And Apple showed that it was going to be a mobile thing a few years after that. And everything has moved off servers in closets to the cloud. Things look a lot differently now. But it helps to go back and think about how it was back then. It gives some perspective.

The “Yes And” Slack Bot

I wrote a blog post a while back about collaborating on a list in Google Sheets. At USV, we do a lot of list making in Google Sheets. But Sheets doesn’t have a great conversational interface for coming up with new entries for the list. So we use email to do that but the process is clunky. In that post, I suggested that we might write a slack bot that takes a conversation in a slack channel and turns it into a list in Google Sheets.

A few days later, I got an email from Alex Godin who had built exactly that bot. We tried it out at USV, made a bunch of suggestions on how to make it better, and the result is the “Yes And” Slack Bot. It was approved yesterday by Slack and is now in their app store.

If you and/or your company uses Slack and Google Sheets a lot, you should give it a try. Details on how to do that are here.

I love it when a blog post at AVC turns into something. It happens a lot actually.

Trends

I like to look at Google Trends from time to time to see what it can tell me about things. I realize that search keyword activity is only one data point in a complex system and that with the move to mobile, it is less important than it was in the web only era. And people search for things when they want them. Once they have them, the search volume goes down. But I still think Google Trends can reveal some interesting things.

Here are some queries I ran today:

Facebook and Google are battling it out for video supremacy, but this query really doesn’t tell us very much about where that battle is going and how it will end. It is interesting to note that YouTube has been a mature but stable business for a long time now.

Twitter and the smartphone seem to have risen with a similar curve and are now in decline, with Twitter falling a bit faster than smartphones.

We see a similar shaped curve with Facebook, but the order of magnitude is quite different which is why I did not combine it with the previous chart.

December 2013 sure seems like the high water mark for the mobile social sector.

But not all boats go out with the receding tide.

Here is Snapchat and Instagram, with Twitter thrown in for scale comparison

It will be interesting to see when Instagram and Snapchat start flattening off. My gut tells me Instagram may already be there but we just don’t see it in the data yet.

Moving on from the past to the future, here are some of the sectors that entrepreneurs and VCs are betting on as the next big thing:

If you take out the VR term and look at the other three, you see something that looks like the NCAA football rankings over the course of a season. Each team/term has had a moment at the top but it remains unclear who is going to prevail.

If we look at one of the most interesting coming battles in tech, the voice interface race, the data is less clear.

I think we haven’t really gotten going on this one. But it is an important one as Chris Dixon explained in a really good blog post last week.

My semi regular Google Trends session today confirms what I’ve known for a while and have written here before. We are largely moving on from mobile and social in terms of big megatrends, video is being played out now, and its not yet clear what is going to emerge as the next big thing. Google is betting on AI and I tend to agree with them on that. Voice interfaces may be a good proxy for that trend.

Community Moderation

The Verge has an incredible post up about “content moderation.”

I have always felt that the hardest part of running an Internet business was insuring the trust and safety of the users and I am thrilled to see some light being shone on this part of the business.

There is always so much talk about the product and engineering parts of the business and so little about the extremely difficult work that goes into policing the product. And yet when you look at churn, so much of it in a scale Internet business is a result of users running out of patience with spam, trolling, and worse. This comment by Dick Costolo from the piece is telling:

“We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day, We’re going to start kicking these people off right and left and making sure that when they issue their ridiculous attacks, nobody hears them.” 

Well as the post points out, that is not so simple. And, of course, there are free speech issues too. I constantly hear people criticizing Twitter for blocking users.

But trolling, as bad as it is, is not the worst part of this work.

A trust and safety team has to deal with the most awful kinds of people and actions imaginable. I often suggest that everyone should sit in a trust and safety organization for a week. Then a lot of the conversations we have about free speech, privacy, and the like would get a lot more nuanced. There are bad people out there doing bad stuff.

Sadly, as I have seen again and again, startups don’t understand how challenging these problems are going to be until some sort of situation forces them to react. Then they throw people at the problem but never their precious “engineering resources.” When trust and safety, fraud, compliance, and moderation teams start getting their own engineering resources, something that often takes years to happen, then you know the company is finally acknowledging the importance and seriousness of the work.

The people profiled in this Verge story are heroes in my book. They do hard work, are not paid as much as they should be, and they are working in incredibly difficult and dangerous (for their mental health) situations. It is high time we start acknowledging them and their work and investing in it.

The Exponential View

I don’t have much to say today so instead of writing something, I am going to promote something.

My partner Albert turned me onto Azeem Azhar‘s weekly newsletter called The Exponential View.

I’ve been getting it for a couple months now and I really enjoy it, particularly the section called “Short morsels to appear smart at dinner parties.”

The Exponential View is hosted on Revue, a platform for newsletter publishers. They call themselves Tumblr for newsletters. It’s very slick and well done.

So, in summary, check out The Exponential View and if you have newsletter publishing in you, check out Revue.

Ad Blockers

I’ve been thinking a lot about ad blockers. I have always resisted using an ad blocker on the view that I value the web and mobile services I use and they need to make money somehow.

But there is a view that ads are unwanted and by opting out of them, you are forcing web and mobile services to come up with a better business model. Of course, I also wonder how many people that use an ad blocker would come out of pocket a couple bucks a month to pay for an ad-free version of the services they use. Pandora has had an ad-free version of its music service for years and I believe (not sure) that only about 5% of its users opt for that.

The idea of taking the business model decision out of the service’s hands and putting it into the user’s hands is interesting. If an ad blocker came with a micro-payments service that automatically paid the web or mobile service the same average revenue per user (ARPU) it was making via ads, that would be cool. That is quite possible with bitcoin and I am expecting we will see something like that emerge in the coming years.

I also think we will see browsers and possibly even mobile phones come with ad blockers built in. Would you swap browsers to get built in ad blocking? Would you swap mobile phones to get built in ad blockers?

One thing is for sure, ad blocking is not going away. If anything, it is growing appreciably.

So, let’s end this with a poll? Do you use an ad blocker, and if so, where?

Video Of The Week: Diversity In Tech Startups

The idea of Magic Johnson participating in a panel at a tech conference is pretty damn great in and of itself. But this is an important discussion and this panel captures a lot of great points. It’s long (45mins) but good.

The Crunchies

I went to the Crunchies last night for the first time. The Gotham Gal was nominated for “Angel Investor Of The Year” and she said, “If by some chance I win and I’m not there to accept, then I would be a jerk.” I agreed with that logic and so we went.

Chelsea Peretti, who hosted, is great. She is very funny. She made fun of tech, SF, and a bunch of other things, but in a good way. I think she is a great choice for host.

Diversity was the theme of the night. The best move was when Slack sent out a number of their female (and african american) engineers to accept one of several awards they won last night. That sent a message to everyone else. If they can do it, so can you. Well played Slack.

But the honest to god truth is most of the winners don’t care about the Crunchies. Not one winner of the big categories showed up to accept their award. So the Gotham Gal would have been in very good company had she not showed up.

And the other honest to god truth is award shows suck. Because there is no single best of anything. No best movie. No best TV show. No best musician. No best comedian. No best VC. No best startup. No best CEO.

And the idea that there is an anathema to me. Which is why I’ve never been to a Crunchies even when I was nominated.

I know I sound like a grump. Award shows are entertainment. People like them. And last night was entertaining thanks to Chelsea and Jordan Crook, who is also quite funny and talented.

But the final thing I will say on this is the reason why award shows exist is because all of the work that everyone does who aren’t nominated and don’t win. So entrepreneurs all over the world are the reason Techcrunch even gets to put on this show. Bill Gurley said as much last night in his gracious and wonderful acceptance speech. And he is right.