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Yuri Milner at Web 2: The Man Behind A Revolution in Finance?

By - October 26, 2010

_@user_95614.jpg.pngWho exactly is Yuri Milner? I’ve heard this question asked quite a bit over the past year, as the Russian financier and entrepreneur has amassed significant holdings in key US Internet players – from Groupon to Zynga to Facebook (where he now owns around 10% of outstanding shares). His company, DST, has more than a billion invested in these social media players. (IT also purchased ICQ from AOL).

I had a chance to sit down with Milner in my San Francisco office, and ask him a few questions about his philosophy of investing, his background, and his strategy going forward. I’m very pleased he will be joining us at the Web 2 Summit – his approach to investing has upended a lot of presumptions about how “mezzanine” deals are getting done. In short, he cares little for the complicated structures and protective rachets of traditional pre-IPO rounds. He’s forced Silicon Valley legends to sit up and take notice. Oh, and by the way, he also owns major stakes in Russia’s most important social networking and Internet companies.

So what would you ask Yuri Milner? Here are a few thought starters:

- What’s your thesis behind investing? What do you look for when you make an investment?

- Does coming from Russia help or hinder your work? What do you want the Valley to understand about Russia that perhaps we don’t?

- Why do you so fervently believe in Facebook? What keeps you up at night about this investment?

- You are actively involved in your investments. What advice do you give to the CEOs of Groupon, Zynga, and Facebook?

- How do your terms of investment differ from traditional mezzanine players?

- Who are your next targets? Why haven’t you invested in Twitter or Demand Media? Betfair? Are there “types” of companies you are not interested in?

- What is the plan with your Russian properties? Do they have properties that you might export to the US or other markets?

- What do you plan to do with ICQ?

What do you want to ask Yuri Milner? Please leave your thoughts in comments. And please do the same for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Baidu’s Robin Li, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz and Google’s Eric Schmidt.

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Mark Zuckerberg at Web 2: Third Time's A Charm?

By - October 24, 2010

Next month will mark the third time that Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg will sit down with me for a Web 2 interview. (The first is above, the second can be found here). Last year Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg joined me, and she was great, but I’m eager to speak with Mark again, given all that has happened in the past year. If you watch his interview in 2007, then a year later, and then his recent appearances, you see a guy who’s really matured as a public figure (and yes, that has a lot of nuance when you run Facebook). Yes, he had a uncomfortable (and famously sweaty) conversation at D earlier this year, but lately I’ve noticed a confidence that I’m going to bet will be on display next month.

Not that we won’t have a few items to cover that will test Zuckerberg’s newfound stage presence, what with congressional inquiries, unflattering Hollywood portrayals, and platform outages to discuss. But if you’re CEO of a very public (though still financially private) company, dealing with these things comes with the territory.

So what would you ask Mark Zuckerberg? Leave your thoughts in comments, and please do the same for Baidu’s Robin Li, Yahoo’s Carol Bartz and Google’s Eric Schmidt. Next up will be Yuri Milner, CEO of DST and major investor in Facebook, Groupon, and many others.

Here are some thought starters for Zuckerberg:

- You recently stated that the company is run basically at break even, and that’s OK. Can you unpack that for us? Investors like DST expect a lot more than that at some point, no?

- While we won’t focus on the movie, it’s a hit, so what does he make of it?

- The question of privacy and in particular user controls. Is he satisfied Facebook has done all it should with the new dashboards?

-  Instrumentation – why didn’t “friend lists” take off? The new Groups. Is it working?

- Faecbook Open Graph. Will TripAdvisor type integrations become the norm?

- A Facebook ad network off domain. Is that coming, when?

- Google.me. Thoughts on this?

- Twitter…same. Is the Interest graph of interest?

- What is next for the Facebook product? Mark famously loves to work on the product. So what’s he working on?

Please leave your comments here, so Tim and I can do the best interview possible! Thanks.

Robin Li at Web 2: Bridging Valley and Chinese Business Cultures

By - October 22, 2010

Baidu stock.pngI’m particularly pleased to welcome Baidu CEO Robin Li to the Web 2 stage this year. Li is a familiar Valley startup success story – he left a promising career at search pioneer Infoseek to found a startup that has rocketed to multi-billion dollar valuations and global business fame. The big difference? Li did it in China.

A one year chart of Baidu’s stock, shown at left, certainly tells a story of success. I spoke to Li earlier in the Fall to prep for our conversation, and found him reserved, intelligent, and perhaps a bit apprehensive. After all, he’s speaking an hour or so after Eric Schmidt, and Baidu is often called “the Chinese Google.” Not to mention the company has profited from Google’s recent decision to, for all intents and purposes, to exit the Chinese market. And I wouldn’t blame him if he’s worried that the industry might call him out for bowing to Chinese policies regarding censorship. But as Li told me, “We’re based in China. We don’t have a choice on this issue.”

American educated, Valley smart, Chinese native, Li is a fascinating study in two cultures. That he’s willing to come and be part of our industry’s conversation says a lot about the man, and I think we’ll all learn from his visit.

Here are some of the things we’ll be discussing, please add your thoughts in comments, and please

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do the same for Yahoo’s Carol Bartz and Google’s Eric Schmidt. (Next up will be Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.)

- The Google comparison, and Google’s recent moves in China. Do you likebeing compared to Google? Do you agree with the company’s clear challenge of the Chinese Government?

- Baidu’s stock has been on an absolute tear. How do you keep this up? Can you?

- Baidu is not well understood by the US market as a technology and product company. What distinguishes its offerings in China?

- Search in China – what’s different, what’s the same?

- The Baidu founding story – it’s a classic. It even has a Andy Bechtolsheim-like check writing moment.

- His take, as a “bridge” figure, on the various battles around Points of Control – Apple, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Are there any parallels in Chinese business culture?

- Will he expand into the US? Europe? Other regions?

Carol Bartz at Web 2: Everybody Is Sticking Everybody Else In The Eye

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(image) Continuing my journey through the highlights of our forthcoming Web 2 Summit (here’s my initial take on Eric Schmidt), today I ask for your help in interviewing Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz. I am particularly pleased Bartz is coming, first because she’s very good in conversation (and yes, often salty), and second because she fell ill the day I was to talk with her last year on stage, and we all missed the chance to hear her then.

However, much has changed since then, although Yahoo shareholders might argue not enough – in particular, not Yahoo’s down-to-sideways stock price (for a comparison to Google’s yearlong performance, see this chart). Those arguments have fostered serious chatter that Bartz might once again miss her Web 2 date – and this time not due to illness.

Well, I predict she’ll show, and she’ll have plenty to say. When we last spoke, we discussed the Web 2 theme, and she summarized it this way: “Everybody is sticking everybody else in the eye.” I won’t take it as my job to instigate her famous sailor’s mouth, but I sense it may go off on its own. After all, we do have a few things to talk about that might make a gal want to cuss. Here are a few of the issues we’ll discuss. Please add your thoughts in comments….

- Any public response to the current rumors of a private equity led buyout of Yahoo, perhaps with an AOL twist? I can’t imagine Bartz will have anything to say about this, but we’ve gotta ask.

- The never ending question: What is Yahoo? Bartz and I spoke about this on the phone a month or so ago, and you may be surprised by her answer. There’s been some seesawing in Yahoo’s definition of itself – from a technology driven company to a media company – how does Yahoo bring the two together? Again, there’s an interesting story here as it relates to content.

- Talent. A lot of folks have left (and yes, many have come). Why? Why would a talented engineer want to go to Yahoo instead of, say, Facebook or a startup?

- Yahoo’s approach to social. The new Yahoo Connect seems directed at Facebook, yet deep integration of Facebook is one of Yahoo’s core strategies.

- Yahoo’s new approach to product and infrastructure (I’ve written about this here). There’s an interesting story to hear, and Carol tells it well.

- The Microsoft search deal. Now mostly integrated, will it/is it bearing fruit.

- Her view of Apple. This should be quite entertaining. As should her take on Google, which she told me “has to grow at least a Yahoo a year…”

- The advertising platform business. Yahoo is deep in it, competing in a trench war with Google and Microsoft. How does Yahoo differentiate?

- The concept of “content with a soul” and her response to the content-farm allegations around Associated Content.

- Local: Always a focus at Yahoo, what’s next?

Please give me your thoughts on what to as Carol in the comments. Thanks!

Eric Schmidt, Opening Coversation at Web 2: So Much To Discuss, So Little Time

By - October 21, 2010

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(photo) As I do each year, I’ll be thinking out loud here about some of the key interviews I’ll be doing on stage at Web 2 next month. Opening the conference is Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google. Given our theme of “Points of Control,” I can’t think of a better way to start – of all the major players in our industry, Google stands alone in both its ambition as well as its power. It’s also got a rather large target on its back – everyone, from Microsoft to Facebook, Apple to Hollywood, everyone competes with Google.   

Google’s ambition is breathtaking, as you can see from the image at left, taken from our interactive Points of Control map. From its base in search, Google has pushed into cloud computing, operating systems, television, mobile platforms (both OS and hardware), social media, content, and advertising. That’s not to mention its rather serious dabbling in energy, transportation, gaming, commerce, and just about everything else.

So there’s a lot to talk about with Dr. Schmidt when we take the stage Nov. 15th. Some key questions include:

- Where is Android going, and will Google see direct revenue streams from it? Will the company take a more central role in driving quality app experiences a la Apple?

- Apple. Thoughts on the company, the competition, and the history (Eric was on Apple’s board).

- Why develop both Chrome OS and Android?

- What exactly is Google.me, and will Google ever make peace with Facebook and start to share data?

- Google TV will be just a few weeks in market. How is it going, and will Hollywood really play ball?

- M&A: Google has purchased two dozen or so startups in the past year. What’s the philosophy and

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thesis here?

- I wrote Stop It, Google won’t buy Twitter. Was I wrong?

- China. Robin Li from Baidu is speaking the same day. How did Google come to the decision to retreat from the world’s largest market?

- Core search: Are we worried about Bing yet?

- Privacy and data control. We’re getting mixed signals from Google (and others) on how this issue will play out. What’s Google’s framework for data controls and how might it differ from, say, Facebook or Apple?

- Self driving cars?!

What else do you think I should ask Eric? And what’s the most important, given the limited time we have? Please leave comments or tweet your response, but make sure to put @johnbattelle in the post!

The Points of Control Map: Now an Acquisition Game – Check It Out

By - October 13, 2010

Screen shot 2010-10-13 at 7.52.40 PM.pngAs you know, part of visualizing the them for this year’s Web 2 Summit included a map I dreamt up with a crew of possibly inebriated fellow travelers. I’ve been really pleased with the response to the maps’ first iteration – we’re closing in on nearly 100K unique visitors who have spent nearly six minutes each playing with the maps various features, which include two levels of detail, threaded location-specific commenting, and a cool visualization of key Internet players’ moves into competitive territories.

But when I brainstormed the map, I always wanted one feature that was a bit difficult to execute: Acquisition Mode. In the Internet Economy, there are there those who acquire, and those who dream of being acquired. This has always been so, but in the past few years it’s been less so. My sense is that is about to change.

To that end, we’ve added a layer to the map that allows anyone to suggest an acquisition, anywhere on the map – and it also allows us to vote for those ideas. My goal is a heat map of acquisitions, a collective intelligence layer, if you will, over the chess moves companies small and large are making in the battle to control key areas across the map.

So if you think it’s a good idea for Twitter to acquire, say, Foursquare, well, suggest it. And see who might vote for it. If you run a startup, hell, tell us who you want to be acquired by – and if you think you’re the acquirer, so much the better. Tell us that as well.

So far, folks think Amazon should acquire Netflix, Facebook should acquire Zynga, and eBay should acquire Yelp, among many others. Check it out, and suggest your own.

I love the web.

It's All The Web

By - September 03, 2010

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Fred points out apps and services that are “Mobile First Web Second.” I don’t like the distinction. To me, it’s all the web. It’s this kind of thinking that leads to Wired’s ill-considered proclamation that “the Web is dead.” (I debate that in the second half of this thread here).

What, after all, is the web, really? To me, it’s a set of standards that allow for interconnection, sharing of experience and data, navigation between experiences, and a level playing field for anyone to create value. If we continue to see mobile as “different” from the web, we may lose the magic the web has evoked – the free and open platform which has allowed thousands of startups to bloom, many of which have changed the world, and, I hope, will continue to do so.

For more on this, read the Economist piece: A virtual counter-revolution. (Image at left is from that piece).

Web 2 Summit Points of Control: The Map

By - August 29, 2010

(Cross posted from the Web 2 Summit Blog…)summit_map_8-17-10-01.png

As themes for conferences go, Points of Control is one of our favorites. Our industry over the past year has been driven by increasingly direct conflicts between its major players: Apple has emerged as a major force in mobile and advertising platforms; Google is fighting off Microsoft in search, Apple in mobile and Facebook in social; and Facebook itself finds itself on the defensive against Twitter and scores of location startups like Foursquare.

Nor are the Internet’s biggest players the only ones in the game – the rise of tablet computing has revived nearly every major hardware and handset manufacturer, and the inevitable march of online payment and commerce has roused the financial services giants as well. You know we’re in interesting times when American Express is considered an insurgent in its own industry.

The narrative is so rich, it struck us that it lends itself to a visualization – a map outlining these points of control, replete with incumbents and insurgents – those companies who hold great swaths of strategic territory, and those who are attempting to gain ground, whether they be startups or large companies moving into new ground. Inspired in part by board games like Riskor Stratego, and in part by the fantastic and fictional lands of authors like Tolkien and Swift, we set out to create at least an approximation of our industry’s vibrant economy. (And yes, we give a hat tip to the many maps out there in our own industry, like this one for social networks.)

*Ed note, I am also indebted to the late night jam session I had with a bunch of pals in my garage…you know who you are…*

The result of our initial efforts is pictured above, you can go to the complete map here. We very much consider this to be “for your consideration,” an initial sketch of sorts, a conversation piece that we hope will garner a bit of your cognitive surplus. In other words, we designed the map so you can give it input and make it better. Over time, we plan to revise the visualization, adding various layers of companies and trends.

(click here for the map, here for the rest of the narrative …)

Demand Media Files To Go Public, First Impressions from the S-1

By - August 06, 2010

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It’s the dog days of August, and a Friday to boot, and I certainly didn’t expect this to land in my mail box this morning: The Demand Media Inc. S1. But I had set an alert for the company – and several others like LinkedIn and Facebook – because I consider Demand to be one of the most important digital media companies to “take the next step” in several years.

The information revealed in the filing explains why. While Demand has been at the center of a months-long debate around whether or not “content farming” is a defensible practice, the facts are the facts: This model is working, and not just in a one-dimensional fashion.

The question remains if Demand will be seen by investors as more than a secondary search arbitrage play – it is dependent on Google for a large portion of its revenues, at least for now. But CEO Richard Rosenblatt, who for the record I count as a friend and colleague (he shares an investor, Oak, with my company FM), has steered the company higher up the content food chain – creating and purchasing brands such as eHow, Livestrong.com, and others, and fostering content partnerships with respected brands like USA Today and Hearst.

Revenue for 2009 was nearly $200 million, and seems on track to grow past $250mm or more this year. I’ll have more on the company during the weekend, once I’ve had time to really grok the filings.

Is The iPad A Disappointment? Depends When You Sold Your AOL Stock.

By - May 31, 2010

iPadresponseJan2010.pngToday’s news that the iPad sold 2 million units in its first two months – coming as it does right before Steve Jobs takes the stage at his only public conference appearance in years outside carefully scripted Apple launch events – led me to reflect on my prediction, in January of this year, that the “iPad would disappoint” (that’d be #5, scroll down).   

In that prediction, which was not without its failures, I wrote:

Sorry Apple fanboys, but the use case is missing, even if the thing is gorgeous and kicks ass for so many other reasons. Until the computing UI includes culturally integrated voice recognition and a new approach to browsing (see #4), the “iTablet” is just Newton 2.0. Of course, the Newton was just the iPhone, ten years early and without the phone bit….and the Mac was just Windows, ten years before Windows really took hold, and Next was just ….oh never mind.

In essence, what I was saying is that the nexus of first wave computing (Windows OS) and second wave computing (the web) had not caught up to Jobs’ vision of the third wave – mobile, multi-touch web-enabled interfaces. I was also hinting at my own bias that voice will become an important part of our interface to machines. Another bias: the assumption that Apple’s tablet would actually attempt to connect the first two waves of computing meaningfully to the third.

I think my prediction was right in the short term (when the iPad was announced, nearly everyone was disappointed at what it wasn’t, see the headlines from January, above), and I was totally wrong in the medium term (the thing has sold two million plus and probably has a shot at being Time magazine’s “man of the year” for 2010). However I still believe I’ll be entirely correct in the long term, in particular if Apple doesn’t change its tune on how the iPad interacts with the web.

Allow me to unpack that last statement.  

What I missed, at least in my initial prediction, was how entirely hermetic and “un-weblike” the iPad would end up being. Like many others, I was surprised at how complete Apple’s disdain is for traditional computing models – including its own Macintosh. The iPad would not be an open development environment – instead it adopted the iPhone model of command and control. The iPad would not allow you to run Mac applications – only iPad/iPhone specific apps approved by Apple would work, and that meant no Microsoft Office, thank you very little. The iPad wouldn’t even let you cut and paste – an innovation Apple pioneered – and worst of all, it seemed, the iPad wouldn’t use Flash – a proxy, as it were, for “the rest of the web that Steve Jobs didn’t quite like very much.”

So initially, anyway, the hue and cry about the iPad amongst the tech elite was decidedly disappointed. The iPad wasn’t a computer! The iPad was just a big iPhone – but without the phone, or even the camera! It’s an overgrown iPod Touch! It breaks the web!

Then it came out, and wow, was it purty. Apple has done it again, we all marveled – the iPad’s genius, it seemed, was that it didn’t try to be a computer – instead, it was a gorgeous device for consumption of media and interaction with apps. And sure, those apps could be web enabled – on the back end – as long as the web was channeled into structured, Apple approved fashion (no third party data sharing, natch). And sure, you could surf the the “real web,” but only if you went through the Apple approved browser, which finds Flash unworthy of rendering.

No matter. The fact is, the iPad is a revelation for millions and counting, because, like Steve Case before him, Steve Jobs has managed to render the noise of the world wide web into a pure, easily consumed signal.

The problem, of course, is that Case’s AOL, while wildly successful for a while, ultimately failed as a model. Why? Because a better one emerged – one that let consumers of information also be creators of information. And the single most important product of that interaction? The link. It was the link that killed AOL – and gave birth to Google.

It was the link that made the web what it is today, and it’s the link – reinterpreted in various new strains – that drives innovation on the web still. The link is the synapse between you, me, and a billion other humans – and the signal (dare I say, a signal one might consider third party data) which allows a million ideas to flourish.

So let me ask you one question, right now: Can you link to an app on your iPad? And I don’t mean a link to download the app on iTunes, folks. I mean, can you create an ecosystem of links, deep into your iPad application(s), links that connect your particular activity stream inside that app with other streams, other links, and other intentions across the web? In ways that create new values, both predictable and unpredicted?

The answer is no. Anymore than you could link to pages deep inside AOL, back when it was a walled garden.

Sure, AOL eventually figured out the web would win, but by then, it was too late.

Next week, Apple will make any number of announcements at its WWDC. I’m hoping the company will announce that it is tacking away from its walled garden approach with the iPad, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Apple makes gorgeous products, but ultimately, I think any product which rejects the web’s core value of connection will simply disappoint. But more likely than not, it’ll be a year or two before that becomes apparent.

PS – If you want a deeper dive on Apple and the web, read this: Will Apple Embrace the Web?  No.