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The World Is An Internet Startup Now

By - July 01, 2011

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(image) Last night I got to throw a party, and from time to time, that’s a pretty fun thing to do. To help us think through the program and theme of the Web 2 Summit this Fall, we invited a small group of influential folks in the Bay area to a restaurant in San Francisco, fed them drinks and snacks, and invited their input. (Here are some pics if you want to see the crowd.)

Nothing beats face to face, semi-serendipitous conversation. You always learn something new, and the amount of knowledge that can be shared in even a few minutes of face time simply cannot be replicated with technology, social media, or even a long form post like this one. I always find myself reinvigorated after spending an evening in a room full of smart folks, and last night was certainly no exception. In fact, about halfway through, as I watched several of my close friends from my home turf of Marin mingling with the crowd, I realized something: The whole world is an Internet startup now.

Let me try to explain.

Back even five years ago, our industry was dominated by people who considered themselves a select breed of financier and entrepreneur – they were Internet startup folk. I considered myself one of them, of course, but I also kept a bit apart – it’s one reason I live up in Marin, and not down in the Silicon Valley. Why did I do that? I am not entirely sure, other than I wasn’t certain I wanted to be fully immersed in the neck-deep culture of the Valley, which can at times be a bit incestuous. I wanted to be part of the “rest of the world” even as I reveled in the extraordinary culture of Internet startup land.

Part of living up here in Marin is meeting and befriending smart folks who have pretty much nothing to do with my business. In the past ten years, I’ve become good friends with real estate developers, investment bankers (and not ones who take Internet companies public), musicians, artists, and doctors. When we first connected, I was always “the Internet guy” in the room. And that was that.

But as I scanned the room last night and watched those friends of mine, I realized that each of them was now involved in an Internet startup in some way or another. I then thought about the rest of my Marin pals, and realized that nearly every one of them is either running or considering running an Internet startup. Only thing is, to them it’s not about “starting an Internet company.” Instead, it’s about innovating in their chosen field. And to do so, they of course are leveraging the Internet as platform. The world is pivoting, and the axis is the industry we’ve built. This is what we meant when we chose “Web Meets World” for the theme of the 2008 Web 2 Summit, but it’s really happening now, at least in my world. I’m curious if it’s happening in yours.

A few examples – though I have to keep the details cloudy, as I can’t breach my friends’ confidence. One of my pals, let’s call him Jack, is a highly successful banker specializing in buying and selling other banks. But he’s an artist in his soul, and has a friend who is a talented photographer. Together they’ve cooked up a startlingly new approach to commercial consumer photography, including a retail concept and, of course, a fully integrated digital and social media component. Jack is now an Internet startup guy.

Another pal is a doctor. We’ll call him Dr. Smith. Smith is a true leader in his field, redefining standards of medical practice. He often gives speeches on what’s broken in the medical world, and holds salons where some of the most interesting minds in medicine hold forth on any number of mind bending topics. For the past year or so, Smith has been working on a major problem: How to get people to understand the basics of nutrition, and engage with their own diets in ways that might break the cycle of disease driven by poor eating habits. He’s got a genius answer to that question, and now, Smith is an Internet startup guy as well.

Dan, another anonymized pal of mine, made his name in real estate. Two years ago he effectively retired, having made enough money several times over to live a very good life and never have to work again. But Dan is a restless soul, and he’s also a bit haunted by the loss of his father to a poorly understood but quite well known neurological disease. He’s dedicated his life to supporting new approaches to research in the field, and the work he’s funded is tantalizingly close to a breakthrough. It’s an entirely new framework for understanding the illness, one that isn’t easy to grok if you’re a layman (as he was when he started). As I listened to him explain the work, I had a very strong sense of deja vu. Dan was an Internet startup guy now, pitching me his new approach to disrupting a sclerotic industry (in this case, the foundation-driven research institutes and their kissing cousins, the pharmaceutical companies.). It may work, it may not, but he’s going to go for it. To raise funds for his new approach, Dan is talking to angels and VCs, and developing a new model for profiting from drug compounds that may come out of the research he’s funded. In short, Dan’s appropriated the Internet’s core funding process to try to solve for one of the most obstinate problems in health.

I could go on. There’s the award winning filmmaker and his musician/producer partner who are creating mind-blowing next generation online games. The agency creative who’s won every traditional advertising prize on the planet, and is now obsessed with digital. And on and on and on….

I guess my point is this: The Internet no longer belongs to the young tech genius with a great idea and the means to execute it online. Innovation on the Internet now belongs to the world, and that is perhaps the most exciting thing about this space. It’s attracting not just the “next Mark Zuckerberg,” but also thousands of super smart innovators from every field imaginable, each of whom brings extraordinary insights and drive to play. And that’s another reason I love this industry, because, in the end, it’s not a singular business. It now encapsulates the human narrative, writ very large.

What a great story. Does it resonate with you? Do you have examples like mine? I’d love to hear them.


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23 thoughts on “The World Is An Internet Startup Now

  1. Adam says:

    This is a great post. The only problem with EVERYONE going to the internet is that it fairly vulnerable.

    I was emailing Vint Cerf awhile back and though he stated that we are not putting all of eggs into one basket with the Internet, he also said, “as to EMI – it’s more than the Internet that would be wiped out – so would the mobile network. a 50 MT blast at 60,000 feet would be massively devastating. It would probably wipe out a lot of home electronics as well since the power system wiring would act as an antenna to pick up and propagate the signal. The power systems would also likely be blown.” He also forwarded this article: http://bit.ly/lEdASm.

    If the world economy becomes entirely reliable on the Internet (it’s pretty much there already) and it’s wiped out by a solar flare or nuclear bomb detonating, we’d be in pretty big trouble. Everything would be sizzled.

    I’m not trying to be a debbie downer. I just think the potential negative impact that an event like this would have tells us that preventing it is something that we should be proactively and heavily investing in.

  2. Erin says:

    Very interesting ideas! I’ll be back for your new articles!

  3. I’m sure it is exhilarating to be around all those people creating Internet startups. But it also sounds like it’s something of a bubble. (I’m in one, too. I live in Boulder.) As I read the economic news, I am aware of how many people in the US and in the world who can barely make ends meet. There’s growing income inequality. So if all of your friends have the resources to create startups, you are living in a fairly rarefied world. And if they are creating companies dependent on consumer spending, they may be in for some hard times ahead.

    I’m actually more cheered by reading stories of villagers in Afghanistan who are building Wi-Fi transmitters out of trash, or people who are turning deserted lots in Detroit into urban gardens.

  4. brenda says:

    i’m so glad to read this story, and saw the development of startup entrepreneur can outperform from the professionals in economics, services, transportation, finance and it was previously unimaginable.

  5. Jeremy says:

    I like to think of it as the gold rush of our age, anyone with an investment of 5K can pick up their pan setup and start mining for internet gold. And its prime time, with the high valuations peaking everyone’s interest the talk of the town isnt the old bubbles or stock market or housing prices , its groupon and zyngas IPO and Colors huge fundraise. We’re back!

  6. Victor says:

    I’ve certainly seen my young peers from a variety of fields get drawn to creating a startup based on their field but leveraging their digital native background.

    But the more interesting example is closer to home — my father is a physician by training and now he’s creating health care webware that solves the problem of excessive testing (defensive medicine to prevent lawsuits).

    The Internet (or the cloud) is becoming a ubiquitous utility like electricity that is central to any business and increasingly not a differentiator but rather a requisite to any product or service. Everyone will be incorporating it in some fashion to their work soon, if not already.

  7. Fred says:

    An intensely parochial view.

  8. Coleman says:

    It would be more accurate to say America is an internet startup now. This is America’s role in the global economy — innovating in every sector of the economy, then letting those innovations spread across the world.

  9. Great post! I’ve been involved with tech startups for over 20 years, sharpening my craftsman for launching tech startups. Before everyone used to give me a strange look (I’m located in the slow to change midwest) when I mentioned what I did.

    Now everyone has an idea they want to pitch me on. And, yes, those ideas are about creating value through innovation. For myself every day I read the WSJ and once a week I get an idea for an application that fills a void for a need I see out there. And, most important, creates value.

    I would also argue that Global Innovation is moving us away from the concept of “Industry”. Something I’ve coined #UNINDUSTRY and with the recent hype over IPOs and the valuations of those companies, it only proves my point. I think the term “Industry” is too limiting for this next wave, call it Web 3.0 if you want.

    By #UNINDUSTRY I mean that we’re entering an age where the companies that have been created and are going to be created, are Industries themselves. Just look at Google, Microsoft, etc. They employ as many people or more than traditional Industry (i.e. The Industrial Revolution is obviously itself outdated) once did and are much more global.

    While Industry is/was about creating jobs, #UNINDUSTRY is about creating value.

    John, I’d be interested to know your thoughts on this.

  10. To be even more specific:

    While Industry is/was about creating jobs, #UNINDUSTRY is about creating value on a global scale only made possible by connectivity.

  11. Talking about new online businesses?
    What about Google Plus? Google needs to provide an untapped wealth of information that is literally right under their feet! Here’s how.
    http://visionefx.net/articles/How-Google-Could-Ultimately-Squash-Facebook.htm

  12. Alex says:

    Fantastic post John. It’s just all about making the world a better place. And that’s just what we’re all doing ;)

  13. Jim says:

    Love your passion, John. And of course many know and many more can see the Internet remodeling every industry. Yet I think you are still playing in rarified air where you live, as I do in San Diego. I serve 1000’s of small businesses with web based services, and most are still mystified, let alone contemplating an Internet startup.Keep up the great work John. I, like you, and many others are drinking the Kool Aid, but not everybody.

  14. Mark says:

    your “internet start up world” hasn’t gotten to New Orleans/my circle of friends yet, if it ever will.
    Who is going to write the companion piece to this, talking about the digital divide?

  15. Thor says:

    thanks for posting all this great info man
    i agree 100% !!!!

    from the Comedy Sketch guys :D

  16. There’s a valid point in what you write — it’s well-observed. But, unfortunately for us, you aren’t “the world”. We aren’t living up there in Marin meeting and befriending smart folks. We haven’t “made enough money several times over to live a very good life.” As much as we may applaud those who can, we aren’t “redefining standards of medical practice.”

    We’re just paying the rent, plus $50/month for online access to blogs like yours.

  17. I can’t agree with you any more. Yes the world is in an internet startup now.

  18. Maurice says:

    Of course, you’re only sampling people you know, who presumably have had “face time” with yourself, and while you expound your views on the state of tech and opportunities presented by the Internet, you’re educating these smart folks in how they could leverage the platform to innovate in their space.

    Don’t underestimate the power of passionately talking about what you do at these parties you attend/throw ;)

  19. george says:

    Great write-up! There are no reaction frightened entrepreneurs in the web economy. You’re so right John, the convergence of people, ideas, talent and businesses derived from the internet is redefining our lives and growth opportunities!

  20. Duane says:

    This did indeed resonate. I am in the process of completely changing the mission and approach of a mid-cap food and beverage company. I am endeavoring to take a company that creates and markets food products, to a company that creates digital destinations packed with tools to address need states (heart health, weight management, allergies, etc), with the food and beverage products being just a few of those many tools. Your friend Dr. Smith and I should talk. Feel free to give him my email.
    Thanks for the post.
    Duane

  21. To get a perspective on that part of the US where internet startups aren’t part of the social conversation, read this. While not everyone has so little money to spend, I know a lot of middle class people who have no extra money to go out to eat, see a doctor, etc. Daily Kos: I want my f*#%ing life back

  22. This was a good post and it has changed some of my perspective about some of this stuff and the safety we have on the internet. We need to be able to have a decent foundation and we if we dont have that we need to have a good foundation repair before we talk about other things.