Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Online Communities: The GeoCities Story

Today's Wall Street Journal featured, on the front page of its Money & Investing section, one of the best analytical, staff-written articles I've read in the paper in ages.

Dennis Berman provides a timely and fascinating look back at the very first, now almost-forgotten online social networking site, GeoCities. Back in 1994, before, as Berman reminds us, high-speed cable or DSL, full motion video, etc., GeoCities, created by David Bohnett, contained the essential elements which today characterize FaceBook, MySpace, et. al.

To summarize the GeoCities story, it rose rapidly among then-popular websites, becoming the "third most-visited site on the Web" in August, 1998. In early 2000, amidst the dot com craze, Yahoo paid $4.7B to buy GeoCities. Bohnett and his team received his payday, and, as Berman writes,

"...their creation would soon wither before their eyes."

He further describes the wrenching, profound changes for GeoCities under Yahoo,

"Life inside Yahoo was smothering for GeoCities, say a number of people familiar with the transition. Developing new technologies for GeoCities' communities slowed to a crawl, as its staff of 30 software developers was cut to a skeleton crew. Yahoo focused instead of building traffic, not necessarily on the programming for improving person-to-person interaction. "Had they done things right with GeoCities, there would be no Facebook, YouTube or MySpace," says one. "

With my own posts regarding Terry Semel's 'leadership' of Yahoo, as may be found by searching on that label on this blog, the following passage almost made me laugh,

"Yahoo's treatment of GeoCities is particularly relevant for Mr. Zuckerberg, who reportedly rebuffed a $1 billion buyout from former Yahoo CEO Terry Semel."

So, having bungled the purchase, integration and management of the internet's very first social networking site, Yahoo was going back for a second bite of this hideously expensive apple? Amazing!

What intrigued me about Berman's article, and the GeoCities/Facebook story, is how perfectly it showcases the basics of Joseph Schumpeter's now long-ago vision of the dynamics of industry and competition. Note that GeoCities was sold to the one firm, Yahoo, which, at the time, could have capitalized its new acquisition and buried all comers with innovation, expansion of services and scale, etc.

Instead, Yahoo thought small, cut costs, and opened itself up to competition, and mismanaged this expensive beachhead into what has become a very hot online business. Talking to Bohnett about this, Berman writes,

"But if he could give advice to Mr. Zuckerberg, he'd recommend heavy investment in new technology to "stay true to what the user experience is." And he stressed the importance of keeping a young audience: "Those kids tend to get older and maintain some connection with an online community. You've got to capture that early adopter, young audience." "

At this point, Mr. Berman had already written a great article. But, next, he further probed the Schumpeterian nature of this product/market space, without explicitly acknowledging the famed dynamic.

In the final paragraphs of his article, Berman reviews Zuckerberg's (Facebook's founder) options and risks,

"Mr. Zuckerberg is in an especially good place right now. His site has developed a patina of invincibility, which in 2006 enabled him to wrangle an especially good advertising deal with Microsoft. Ever the Net-laggard, Microsoft is now guaranteeing about $75 million in revenue this year, which could become as much as $300 million by 2011 if traffic grows rapidly.

Alas, advertisers have found Facebook users to be a huge audience -- that could care less about ads. The percentage of users clicking onto site advertisements on Facebook and MySpace are lower than typical Web sites. That means it's essentially sucking up a subsidy from Microsoft, which wants to get its hooks into Facebook the best it can."

Which leads Berman to what I feel makes this an outstanding article. Rather than stopping short with an excellent review of GeoCities, a comparison of it and its fate with today's Facebook, and leaving it at that, he goes one step further. Berman risks alienating the entire business, i.e., Facebook and MySpace, by noting how dependent it is upon advertising, and how horribly, traditionally difficult it has been to make this work,

""It's not that easy to monetize social media," says Eric Hippeau, a managing partner of Softbank Capital that made more than 20 times its investment in GeoCities. He also sits on Yahoo's board. "Once Microsoft's deal with Facebook expires, as does Google's deal with MySpace, they're going to have to sell advertising for themselves and it's going to be a challenge." So far, he says, "it's not that easy to match the right advertising with the right audience."

That squares with the experience of Thomas R. Evans, GeoCities' former chief executive. "When you're as successful as GeoCities, everyone tells you how wonderful you are. It causes you to miss opportunities." Now the CEO of Web site Bankrate.com, he added that, "People at the time were dismissive of old media experience. But it turned out looking exactly like the old media business. You have to execute and provide both the consumer and the advertiser with significant value."

At some point, the questions about Facebook the business will eclipse the praise of Facebook the social phenomenon. And once that point hits, Mr. Zuckerberg will be less able to dictate the terms of how fresh capital is put to use."

Mr. Berman pulls no punches. From his initial description of the now-essentially-defunct GeoCities, to the likely fate of Facebook, his superb writing uncovers a wonderful, timeless story of business innovation, absorption, mismanagement, the rise of new competitors, and the continuing weakness of the underlying business model.

Aside from the marvelous business strategy expose, Mr. Berman makes it hard for the reader to avoid asking the question,

"If no other, larger firm, had bought, or bought stakes in, GeoCities, or was trying to buy or invest in Facebook, would Bohnett and Zuckerberger realize millions in wealth simply from the profitability of their businesses and business model? Or would they become, like Amazon, long on initial market value gains, but short on realized profits?"

Thus, leading to the ultimate question,

"Were/are the acquiring giants of these online social networking businesses the greater fools?"

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