A few years back I worked on a tiny startup that was attempting to jump on the affiliate marketing/blogging bandwagon. It was all the rage that people were making $100Ks per year just writing articles and doing a good job on driving traffic and purchases to marketers. It was a site about how geeks were cool because they were buying cool products, and so we would write about these really cool products and then drive affiliate traffic to places where you could buy them.
Our venture didn't get that far, but so many others' did. And the list is growing.
As everyone working on projects on the Net knows, the cost of building a business has dropped dramatically over the years. It started with blogging software which would could install on our own servers or use the hosted versions. Now, you can go out and find shareware for just about anything; stuff that would have cost a big company millions of dollars and a team of 100 to build in the past could now be found and deployed for a tiny fraction of that cost.
It's also easier to deploy web applications now. Previously you had to be a computer scientist to do so; now just about anyone can figure out how to deploy it, or using hosted versions just fill out a signup form and point your domain at it and you're off and running.
So now, just about anyone can throw up a website which has some advanced functionality. And people are doing it too. In the startup world, we see the internet has gotten super crowded over the last few years. Very few truly unique business/product ideas have emerged, and many are just clones of each other. Or once someone puts up a good idea, the clones emerge quickly because it's so easy and fast to put up a website. Thus, it's now less about the idea but rather how many customers you can grab and whether you can monetize that traffic to balance out your burn.
Thankfully, the internet crowd is enormous. Grabbing a small slice of that traffic and monetizing it effectively can mean a sustainable business that pays its employees a decent salary. In the past, we called these businesses microbusinesses or lifestyle businesses where a single person could make a decent living managing a website. However, in today's world, I call this phenomenon the rise of small business on the net.
Many startups we encounter have plans that we know can reach this stage. With great execution and effort, we can easily see many businesses growing to great small businesses. They will have revenue from several $100Ks a year to small millions. They have a small teams and all of them are well compensated for their work. All the employees will have great lives supported by this business.
The effort is comparable to opening up a storefront on your favorite street. In the old days, you'd go find a great physical location with lots of foot traffic. You go get a small business loan from your local bank and open up shop. Then you go and acquire customers and build your business from there. In today's world, you can do it on the internet without a physical location and tap into customers from around the globe.
From an investor's standpoint, we're finding that this creates a number of problems. Our model is dependent on finding those startups which will go big, much bigger than small business size, and find a way to return our investment with large gain through some mechanism like M&A or IPO. However, the ease at which startups can reach small business stage makes our job harder; we're seeing many businesses reach a certain level of growth and then breaking through that level is tough due to how easy it is for competitors to enter your market, and how hard it is to acquire the attention of users.
Some of us are thinking about change in the way we support some startups. I find parallels in the area of restaurant investing, where the investment is all about cash return and not ownership. What kind of restaurant would go IPO? Highly unlikely. But could we make 10-20% on our investment? Infinitely possible.
I wonder about how the structure of deals we do for internet startups might mimic restaurant investing. Instead of caring so much about ownership, perhaps we should find a way to get a healthy return on capital invested through cash flow, if the startup monetizes efficiently and does it well.
The problem with traditional investing in startups here is that these small businesses may never attract an acquirer and certainly the chance of an IPO is even more remote. Driving these small businesses to activities to return an investors' capital in that manner may take a healthy sustainable operation and turn it into something unsustainable and problematic as it reinvents itself to attract an M&A event or IPO. That seems dumb; the business is thriving and its employees well paid and happy - why destroy this?
I think the world of investing should think more about the rise of small business on the net. Many more businesses each day are showing up that are great sustainable operations supporting employees and their customers. They are never going to be superstar Googlesque success stories and we should not attempt to turn them into one. In today's crappy economy, the world needs more small businesses to show up to employ the masses and make them money. We as investors should find a way to invest in and help these companies to grow, and just be comfortable in the fact that they will never be Google but still can help us make a healthy return on our money.