Posted on January 3, 2008
Filed Under Web 2.0 Kool Aid |

Allen Stern at CenterNetworks lit the tech blogosphere ablaze today with a post about . My favorite “community” CEO Jason Calacanis, leader of one of the Dumbest Startups of 2007, Mahalo, with an absolutely brilliant explanation of why Twitter will be a billion-dollar company in 12-24 months. Among his pearls of wisdom:

Allen wrote a blog post today about Twitter focusing on a business model. Allen, my friend, you’re thinking small. Get out of Brooklyn and spend more time in the Valley. Business models!?!?! The business model comes AFTER you get to scale.

Bottom line? Ev shouldn’t worry about a business model for another two years. Just build the service to *massive* critical mass. Get to 100M users–which is where the service is headed. If the service gets to 100M monthly users it will be worth a couple of billion.

That’s what I learned at AOL: Once you have critical mass you can’t help but make a fortune. An absolute idiot with 10-20M users can make a ton of money. So, get to tens of millions of users and forget about money.

Game over.


Running a startup is NOT about revenue anymore–it’s about critical mass. It’s about scale. When you’re playing in the big leagues with unlimited access to capital you shouldn’t worry about revenue BEFORE you have critical mass.*

* Note: if you’re not a player like Ev, and you don’t have unlimited access to capital do not take this advice and focus on building revenue streams.

Fred Wilson, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which has invested in Twitter, for obvious reasons :

And I also noted that some of the best web companies of our time; Google, YouTube, Skype, and Facebook all launched without a business model and too their sweet time getting to one.

To me its really simple. You can’t monetize web services very well until you have an audience of scale. Jason Calacanis suggests that 10mm monthly uniques is where you have scale. I think it can be less in some cases (highly targeted services) and more in some cases (social nets). But every ounce of time, energy, money, and brainpower you spend on thinking about how to monetize will take you away from the goal of getting to scale. Because if you don’t get to scale, you don’t have a business anyway.

Perhaps the most salient response to all of this bullshit was posted by Don MacAskill, the CEO of SmugMug:

I have unlimited access to capital, but I still focus on building my business first and my scale second.

The “scale first, then find a business model” route only works as long as you’re in a bubble, like we are now. But if that bubble bursts before Twitter both gets to scale and finds their business model, they could be in big trouble.

Companies that already have a solid business model, especially those that are bubble-bursting resistant, on the other hand, should be able to clean up.

Unless you’re a VC, and you’re fine losing 99 times out of 100 as long as that one hit is massive, running a startup *IS* about revenue, not critical mass.

I think smart entrepreneurs would be far wiser to heed Don’s advice than the advice of Jason Calacanis and Fred Wilson. Don’s company has been in business for just over 5 years, has over 450,000 paying customers and generates over $10 million in revenue per year. More importantly, it has never taken any outside money and from all appearances, will probably never have to. Compare this to Plaxo, which has joined desperate startup Digg in hiring an investment bank to get itself sold: also around for 5 years, Plaxo has taken over $20 million to achieve the scale/critical mass Calacanis and Wilson describe but has yet to turn a profit. Where will its money come from? If it’s lucky, an idiot who wants to pay $100 million for something that hasn’t made a cent.

In other words, guys like Don may not have the “sexiest” businesses but they’re sitting on real money (the kind that you can touch and smell). Guys like Calacanis and Wilson spend most of their time sitting on paper money that they hope they can turn into real money by finding people who think they are getting a great deal on the Brooklyn Bridge.

Don’s comment gets to the heart of the following truths:

At the end of the day, Twitter is irrelevant (I personally think it’s a useless service that, at best, is used by useless people, and at worst, wastes the time of people who could be doing something useful). The debate over the importance of revenue is really a simple one for every entrepreneur: are you building a business or are you gambling? Twitter might become a billion dollar company but if it does, it will likely have done so by gambling, not by building a business.

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11 Responses to “Getting Twisted Over Twitter”

  1. allen on January 3rd, 2008 7:49 am

    great post - i’m looking forward to our interview :)

  2. Michael Camilleri on January 3rd, 2008 9:49 am

    I suppose there’s something to the argument about critical mass. Critical mass seems to have been the plan of television networks for the last fifty or so years and from what I can see it worked out fairly well for them. However, considering where they’re now headed perhaps it’d be wise to make sure that strategy is going to hold up as well for the next decade as it did for the preceding five.

  3. Stanley Miller on January 3rd, 2008 9:55 am

    Drama: Once again you’re doubting the visionaries of our time. You’re thinking in terms of the “old economy” where once businesses sought to create practical products and services; things that had man vs. nature appeal. In the “new economy” businesses seek to build brands, manufacture feelings, and promote play; man now seeks his nurture.

    “Twitter” and “tweets” are awesome brand plays. At this point, the underlying service is secondary to building that brand. Build the brand and you can serve up anything underneath it. A social network for tweens? Tweriffic!

    I say, let it ride!

  4. Drama 2.0 on January 3rd, 2008 11:35 am

    Michael: critical mass can be very important, but I think the idea that critical mass trumps revenue is foolish. There are obviously significant differences between television networks and Internet startups that I dont’t need to point out.

    Stanley: since when are revenue models not viable for “businesses” that build brands, manufacture feelings and promote play? World of Warcraft and Cyworld don’t offer products and services that are practical but they make lots of money.

  5. Antje Wilsch on January 3rd, 2008 12:23 pm

    The entrepreneurs I talk to who are all making the rounds now are all saying that VCs are saying this: get traffic, monetize later. Is there any wonder people are buying fake user accounts for 10cents from India?

  6. Drama 2.0 on January 3rd, 2008 1:33 pm

    Antje: send them my way. I can get them fake user accounts for half that.

  7. Stanley Miller on January 3rd, 2008 4:27 pm

    Drama: You need to set aside your conventional way of thinking when profiling Web 2.0 companies. Much of what you see in Web 2.0 are public “experiments.” Sometimes things blow up in the lab - like the the excessive downtime with Twitter. Anyway, you’ll drive yourself nuts always looking for that darn business model. The business model part may never come. View the founder(s) and investors in Twitter as “explorers” more than entrepreneurs. Judge the expeditions and experiments accordingly not the model. There is none.

    Does it feel good?
    Does it create emotion?
    Is their broad demographic appeal?
    Is it fun?
    Is it simple?
    Is it brandable?

    Twitter is a big Yes. Tweet on!

  8. Drama 2.0 on January 3rd, 2008 5:59 pm

    Sorry Stanley. I’m not into experiments - I’m into making money. And last time I checked, most of the limited partners who give VCs money to play with are into the latter as well.

    When these idiotic Web 2.0 startups stop masquerading as real businesses, I’ll stop criticizing them. Until then, there are no separate business rules for Web 2.0 that don’t apply to any other industry.

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