One of our themes is Protocol. We’ve been investing in companies built around technology protocols since 1994. One of my first investments, when I moved to Boulder in 1995, was in a company called Email Publishing, which was the very first email service provider. SMTP has been very good to me.
We made some of the early investments in companies built around RSS, including FeedBurner and NewsGator. RSS is a brilliant, and very durable, protocol. The original creators of the protocol had great vision, but the history and evolution of RSS were filled with challenges and controversy. Like religious conflict, the emotion ran higher than it needed to and the ad-hominem attacks drove some great people away from engaging with the community around the protocol.
And then Facebook and Twitter took over. RSS Feed Readers mostly vanished, and the feed became the “Twitter feed.” After a while, Facebook realized this was a good idea, and created the “Facebook news feed.” I think it’s hilarious that the word “feed” is still in common usage – The Dixie Flatline is amused.
Over dinner, after he had become the COO of Twitter (but before he was the CEO), Dick Costolo (who had previously been the founder/CEO of FeedBurner) told me that he viewed Twitter as the evolution of RSS. At a protocol level this wasn’t true, but at a functional level (providing another way to get access to everything going on any website that was publishing content) this became true. Our investment in Gnip (which Twitter eventually acquired) helped extend this, by allowing companies to build products on top of the Twitter firehose (which was the name for the entirety of everything being tweeted on Twitter.)
Time passed. Facebook and Twitter gobbled up all the direct attention of end-users. Publishers pushed their content through Facebook and Twitter, not realizing the control over the user they were giving up to these platforms. For some reason, there was more focus for a while on Google, and how they were aggregating content. The beauty, and brilliance, of the web, started to become the walled garden of Facebook. For those of us who remembered AOL’s walled garden vs. the web (and Microsoft’s failed attempt as MSN as a walled garden), there were echoes of the past all over the place.
Some smart people started talking extensively about decentralization and lock-in right around the time that the Facebook privacy stuff became front and center. As it unfolded, and the dust settled, there was nothing new, other than a continued schism between the effort to control (and monetize) users and the effort to create broadly democratized and decentralized information. Oh – and privacy. And legitimacy (or authenticity) of information, much of which is wholly subjective or imprecise anyway.
In the middle of all of this, Wired’s Article It’s Time For An RSS Revival caught my attention. I’ve been using RSS continuously for over a decade as my primary source of information. My current feed reader is Feedly, which I think is currently the best in class. It’s one of my primary sources for information that informs me, is private, and allows me to control and modulate what information I look at.
While RSS has disappeared into the plumbing of the internet, there’s still something fundamental about it. Its durability is remarkably impressive, especially in the context of the lack of the evolution and perceived displacement of the protocol over the past few years.
The tension between walled gardens (or lock-in, or whatever you want to call it) and a decentralized web will likely never end. But, it feels like we are in for another significant turn of the crank on how all of this works, and that means lots of innovation is coming.
Many companies travel a long and interesting journey. When we invested in NewsGator in 2004, RSS was just starting to emerge as a protocol and wire up much of the content on the web. At the time, it was impossible to anticipate how the web would evolve, as 2004 was a particularly low point in the evolution of venture capital and tech companies. Of course, it was also the year that Facebook was founded, which is an important thing to remember about the relationship between perception in the moment and long term reality.
A little over a decade later, mobile is dominating much of the growth of the web. Every company we are involved in is working on a mobile app. Every Fortune 1000 company I’m in touch with is focused on its mobile strategy and figuring out how to build and deploy mobile applications to its employees, many of them who are now engaging in BYOD where their personal mobile device and work mobile device is the same iPhone or Android phone.
A year and a half ago NewsGator acquired Sitrion to expand from their historical Microsoft SharePoint ecosystem product footprint to include SAP via Sitrion’s products. We decided to rebrand the company Sitrion as we liked the name better. As a hidden gem, we got the beginnings of an amazing mobile product that Sitrion had started working on.
NewsGator also had developed key mobile technology, especially for the enterprise, but with a tight dependency on SharePoint. Last year the combined product team stepped back, thought about what it had, and redefined the vision of the company around the notion of “the industrialization of mobile.”
Daniel Kraft, the CEO of Sitrion, has a very simple explanation of what the product and team addresses. Today, mobile apps are hand-crafted solutions for a specific use case. Accordingly enterprises make investments in very specific projects and just start to look for ways to mobilize their entire workforce.
Instead of building a new app for each use case, Sitrion provides the customer with one app for each platform (iOS, Android, Windows Phone) and pushes all the required services (micro-apps) to this app based on people’s roles, context or even behavior. As a result, you can create many custom apps, for specific use cases, without having to have a developer create multiple apps.
We think this will result in up to 90% reduction in development costs as you actually don’t need any OS developers. Time to market is correspondingly faster and TCO drops dramatically. Instead of an employee having 25 different company apps on their BYOD phone, they have one “container” app with 25 micro-apps.
What do you think? Are we in front of an industrialization of mobile, or are enterprises just slow and need to wait many more years for mobile being the main way things get done in large companies, just like how it’s playing out with consumer behavior?
My friends at NewsGator have started a fundraising campaign to help victims of the Colorado wildfires. In addition to getting the campaign up and running, NewsGator has committed to a matching gift of $10,000. Amy and I decided to match that gift from our foundation, so the matching gift is now $20,000.
I’d like to encourage everyone involved in a startup in Colorado (or anyone in the world) to help your neighbors in Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, and Boulder who are victims of the current fires that are raging. There are two ways to do this:
1. Give a direct gift via my page. Amy and I are matching the first $10,000 of gifts.
2. If you are part of a startup, start a campaign for your company. It’s easy and will take a few minutes. Then – rally your gang to contribute.
While the current Boulder fire is getting under control, many people in Colorado Springs and Fort Collins are still at risk. And many others have been impacted. Here’s a note I got from a friend in Fort Collins.
hi, brad. yes, sadly, our ranch burned to the ground 2 weeks ago. we got the all clear to go back on thursday. even though it’s a giant scorched hole in the earth, we need to see it.
we’re fine. animals, horses, children all safe. we were on a motorcycle trip. so, literally have only the clothes on our backs (and some really cool motorcycle helmets). i’ve never had nothing and i’m learning a lot from it.
We are part of an amazing community. Be thankful for what you’ve got and send good karma out in the world. You never know when you’ll need it to come back to you.
While you might be interested in a
ego vanity iPhone app like the Brad Feld iPhone app, you are probably a lot more interested in an iPhone app for your business. NewsGator has become an expert at building these and has developed a superb framework for branded iPhone apps.
On March 31st they are having a Webinar titled Gain Revenue & Readership with Branded iPhone Apps – Reed Business Case Study Webinar. Walker Fenton from NewsGator and Brien Tate (Reed Business’ CTO) will walk through what they’ve done around the Variety iPhone app including:
- The differences between iPhone Apps and web applications
- The benefits of making your content available via an iPhone App
- How to monetize your iPhone App
- How to publicize your iPhone App
- An iPhone App case study featuring Reed Business/Variety.com
NewsGator has learned a huge amount about building, deploying, monetizing, and publicizing iPhone apps. Attend the webinar to find out more for yourself.
In case you don’t get enough of me, you can now download the Brad Feld iPhone app. Or – from your iPhone – just do an App Store search on Brad Feld. As a result of the Brad Feld iPhone app you can easily get the blogs from Feld Thoughts, Ask the VC, Foundry Group, Amy Batchelor, and Stan Feld all in one nifty app on your iPhone.
While my ego is satiated, at least for a few days, the really cool thing to me is how this came together. When the iPhone first came out, Brent Simmons created an iPhone version of NetNewsWire which was dynamite. He iterated quickly on this and realized that it could be the core of an iPhone app business built on top of the NewsGator / NetNewsWire framework. This has resulted in a new product for NewsGator – the NewsGator iPhone App Framework.
They needed a “test app” to harden the framework and I quickly volunteered (ah – the special privileges of a nerdy early investor.) The result is the Brad Feld iPhone app, but more importantly a deep iPhone app dev framework. Brent – who continues to do an amazing job on everything he touches – talks about the why and how along with announcing the deployment of a real iPhone app for Variety (vs just his cheesy
investor beta tester.)
Greg Reinacker, the founder/CTO of NewsGator, has a post up titled Enterprise RSS – the State of the Industry that is a continuation of the discussion that’s recently ensued around Enterprise RSS (reference my post from the other day – Enterprise RSS at NewsGator is Alive and Well). Following is the setup.
First, let me get this out of the way – RSS use in the enterprise is definitely alive and well. But it’s not in the obvious places. No one is writing articles talking about how their desktop feed readers are revolutionizing the way they do business. No one is talking about how they’re retiring their Exchange servers because so much content is delivered via RSS instead of email (and in fact, email is alive and well). No one is saying “if I only had Google Reader behind my firewall, I could save millions of dollars.” Few companies even say their users are clamoring for some sort of enterprise RSS application.
So if not all of that, then what?
My team and I, collectively, have detailed conversations with at least 50 different large companies every week, talking about the real problems they do want to solve. Many of these include 10 or more people on their side, ranging from IT folks to business owners with line-of-business responsibility. And these conversations rarely start with any mention of enterprise RSS.
Take a look at Greg’s post Enterprise RSS – the State of the Industry for detailed examples on what these conversations include.
Marshall says “It’s with a heavy heart and a sense of bewilderment that we conclude that the market for enterprise-specific RSS readers appears to be dead.”
Huh? Marshall, are we living in parallel universes?
NewsGator has built its business on Enterprise RSS. It has two primary revenue generating products around Enterprise RSS: Social Sites Professional and Social Sites Enterprise. There are now over 120 companies using these products representing over 800,000 users. Per the press release NewsGator issued today, customers that bought these products in 2008 include:
- Two of the world’s top three banks
- Two of the three largest banks in the US
- The world’s largest private public relations firm
- The second-largest advertising agency in the US
- Two of the top three US manufacturers of network and communications equipment
- The world’s second-largest law firm
- Four of the top 15 US pharmaceutical companies
- Two of the top seven US aerospace and defense companies
- One of the top five investment banks in Canada
- The fourth-largest generator of electricity in the US
In addition, NewsGator had a spectacular Q4. They solidly beat the plan for Q4 that they had established at the beginning of 2008 (and met their 2008 overall plan on the top line and were ahead of plan on the bottom line.) NewsGator added around 30 new customers in Q4, including six in the financial services sector, one of the areas most impacted by the economic downtown.
How many enterprise software companies can say that?
Marshall goes on to say “Newsgator, one of those three companies, announced today that it has closed another round of funding. Years after the company launched, it appears to us that the funding is a life-support line for a company that has largely left enterprise RSS behind and has been humbled into selling advertising widgets.”
For starters, when we did the first round of financing of NewsGator in mid-2004, the company consisted of one person (Greg Reinacker). 4.5 years later it is 55 people and dominates the market it plays in. You can call it “Enterprise RSS” or “Social Computing for the Enterprise” – I don’t really care. What I do care is that the customers that have bought NewsGator’s products love them, are using them, and are realizing Marshall’s words “Any company that steps up to make serious strategic use of such software should be at an immediate advantage in terms of early and efficient access to information.”
The notion that NewsGator’s funding “is a life-support line” is totally absurd. One of my goals with all of my “more mature” (e.g. older than three years) portfolio companies is to make sure they are “fully funded through becoming cash flow positive.” This financing unambiguously gets NewsGator to that point with plenty of room to spare. NewsGator still had cash in the bank prior to this financing; the last time I checked an incremental $10m of financing is a meaningful amount for any company.
Marshall, I invite you out to Denver anytime (or we will come to you) to spend the day at NewsGator, really understand their products, and get a deep understanding of how NewsGator is spreading “Enterprise RSS” to the corporate masses. Seriously, come spend some time, do some real research, and help the industry understand the value of this stuff.
If you’ve been following NewsGator’s progress, you know that they have two major parts to their business – their (1) enterprise products and (2) media products. They had an excellent year in 2008 with significant growth on both sides of their business along with an especially strong Q4.
With over 100 active customers on the media side of their business, NewsGator kept hearing the following things:
- Can you be a single point of contact for our display media purchases for our digital properties?
- Can you deal with all of our remnant ad inventory – 50% of our traffic is remnant and we know we aren’t getting paid anything for it?
- Can you help us sell ads in all the widgets you are delivering for us?
- Can you put advertising in the iPhone app you are building for us?
- Can you help us with pre-roll video in the video widgets you are delivering for us?
Last fall a group of us started talking about how to accommodate our customers’ requests for these things. There’s a longer list of “can you …” but we decided to focus on these five issues as they came up regularly in our discussions with our customers. I suggested strongly that we should partner with other companies to deliver these services to our customers. The consistent message from our customers is “we love working with you guys – will you just take care of all of this stuff for us?”
AdBurner is the result. NewsGator has partnered with and integrated Technorati (#1), AdMeld (#2), Gigya (#3), Medialets (#4), and Tremor Media (#5) into a single offering. While Technorati and AdMeld are investments of ours, Gigya, Medialets, and Tremor are not so NewsGator chose from a portfolio of potential partners that were like minded, interested in using NewsGator as an indirect channel (to NewsGator’s existing customers), and recognized the value to the customer of delivering a portfolio of services through one company (in this case, NewsGator).
As I mentioned above, there are a lot more “can you questions” that our customers are asking us (#6 through #17) and now that NewsGator has released the initial version of AdBurner, they are starting to explore the next wave of partners for their media products. All of this is being customer driven and is in response to real customer needs, which I find to be particularly powerful.
Kevin Kelleher’s article on GigaOm this morning titled 2009: Year of the Hacker made me think back to the rise of open source after the Internet crash of 2001. In the aftermath of the crash, many experienced software developers were out of work for a period of time ranging from weeks to years. Some of them threw themselves into open source projects and, in some cases, created their next job with the expertise they developed around a particular open source project.
We are still in a tense and ambiguous part of the current downturn where, while many developers are getting laid off, some of them are immediately being picked back up by other companies that are in desperate need for them. However, many other developers are not immediately finding work. If the downturn gets worse, the number of out of work developers increases.
If they take a lesson from the 2001 – 2003 time frame, some subset of them will choose to get deeply in an open source related project. Given the range of established open source projects, the opportunity to do this today is much more extensive than it was seven years ago. In addition, most software companies – especially Internet-related ones – now have robust API’s and/or open source libraries that they actively encourage third parties to work with for free. The SaaS-based infrastructure that exists along with maturing source code repositories add to the fun. The ability to hack something interesting together based on an established company’s infrastructure is omnipresent and is one of the best ways to “apply for a job” at an interesting company.
We are thinking hard about how to do this correctly at a number of our new investments, including companies like Oblong, Gnip, and a new cloud-computing related startup we are funding in January. Of course, many of our older investments such as NewsGator and Rally Software already have extensive API libraries and actively encourage developers to work with them. And of course, there are gold standards of open source projects like my friends at WordPress and masters of the API like Twitter.
If you are a developer and want help engaging with any of these folks, or have ideas about how this could work better, feel free to drop me an email.