For 21C Malone, #whatsnext?
These guys are two of the people I've worked most closely with in the last few years and some of my favourite people in the industry and now they will be playing in different bands. It seems like much of the focus so far, has been on Andy going to USV but given I've know John for much longer, I thought I'd give my two cents on that part of the journey.
I think I first met John or as he’s now know - @borthwick - in 1996 in a tiny office in Cambridge, MA. We were talking about how Firefly and TotalNewYork could work together. He was building the bones of a distributed network of local content sites and we were building (I think!) a distributed identity network to personalize web applications.
We must have clicked, because this was the first of many conversations on pretty much the same theme we had in many different guises over the next 16 years.
While John stayed East and sold his company to AOL, where he worked with Ted Leonsis to buy and build out communications and media services like ICQ, WinAmp, Spinner and AOL Greenhouse, the Firefly team went West. We were locked up in the ivory towers of Redmond for two years trying to build out an identity based web platform (Passport), which core communications services (Hotmail and Messenger) could plug into as well as any apps Microsoft were building (Expedia, Sidewalk, Finance etc). We really wanted to work with John and AOL to federate the network, but we were Explorer and soon John became Netscape - any shared vision we had of what data driven web might look like went by the wayside.
When I left Seattle in 1999 and moved to New York to work on accelerator 1.0 with my partner Upendra (who went on to work with John at AOLTW) - the first crew we reconnected with and sought out were John, Scott Heiferman, Seth Goldstein, Steven Johnson and Clay Shirky.
This was (is) an amazing group - in fact its always a touch awesome to see what they’ve all done in the last 10 years, but John was always a little different. Entrepreneurial - check. Big thinker - check. Great seed investor - check (will also be thankful for John’s intro to Pyra Labs). Working in a nimble start-up environment - NFW!
Either John was in training to be Rupert Murdoch or John Malone, or he was mad. While the rest of us were dabbling in startups, he was fully embedded inside an AOL which was uncomfortably merging with Time Warner and getting pretty good at playing macro-political chess with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and News Corp. (I had a brief window into this when I was at Skype talking with John about how we could work with AIM).
In fact what I think he was doing, was trying to see how far you could push the innovation model inside a huge company. He wanted to see whether you could actually leverage this amazing set of assets to do something transformational. He and his little team of rockstars (including my now friends Carter and Josh) were figuring out if they could build a platform with the same principles of federated identity we’d discussed 6 years before in Cambridge to deliver personalized, interactive applications which could leverage the awesome distribution power of wires (ISP and cable), the social distribution power of contacts (AIM and ICQ) and combine it all with the greatest content kingdom on the planet (Warner, HBO and Time). Why not? It had to be worth a shot, in fact I was momentarily tempted to join him on this crazy mission!
But all good things come to an end - we knew that in the end, John would get frustrated and take the leap full time to start-up land. So in around 2007 after John had helped Scott Heiferman sell Fotolog and left Time Warner, he took a break with his family and passed through London. I was leaving Skype and about to focus more on investing with TAG and Index - so again we talked about #whatsnext.
We discussed the low cost of company building; we talked about new investment models; but as always, we drifted back to platforms and the components you would need for building and testing applications. John energized me to develop the Seedcamp idea, inspired by what Paul Grahams was doing at YCombinator and I listened as he outlined his first drafts of what would become the first few chapters of Betaworks.
I remember my first experience of John’s Betaworks vision. I think it was his first Betaday. There must have been around 25 people: Scott Heiferman talking about his amazing Meetup.com and building businesses which lasted decades (this was the business in 2002 gave me my faith back in the web), folks like David Karp (just starting) and hackers fresh out of YC roaming around. But the stand out for me was an amazing guy who John knew from AOL and Wesleyan (his college) - Andy Weissman - who was thinking about the next version of venture. As usual with John this was a loosely federated network, but he clearly knew which way it was going and although his foresight on Tumblr was not clear to me then (more fool me!), Andy was an obvious gem.
In a way Betaworks gave me my first real opportunity to work with John on a regular basis and my first ever occasion to work with Andy. Between TAG and Betaworks we ended up doing a lot together. We co-invested in Daylife, Songkick, Snaptalent and Tipjoy. We backed Betaworks projects like Bitly and with Index, Chartbeat. But where we definitely had the most fun (and arguments!) was in building companies together with Iain at TweetDeck and Mario at Twitterfeed. One of the most energizing few days I’ve had in years was when John was talking to me about us working with him and Iain at TweetDeck - rolling through our lessons from the browser-wars and plotting how to make clients more social and sticky.
This is a really exciting new chapter and the timing is typically spot on, because in the last 4 years Andy and John in startup parlance have “killed it”: Summize, TweetDeck, SocialFlow, Bitly, Chartbeat and on. They are at the top of their game. They have turned whiteboard sketches into products; products into businesses and invested in some of the hottest startups (Tumblr, GroupMe, Kickstarter) in the last 5 years - all the time helping to re-energize the NYC startup scene, creating an amazing space to work, be a landing pad for Seedcamp and generally just being great people.
I have to say, one of my great professional guilty pleasures in the last 4 years has been getting to know and work with Andy. He’s just a total pleasure: smart, laid back, totally passionate, seriously into his music and although he comes across as the most amiable, reasonable New Yorker you will ever meet, the man is no pushover. I am thrilled for him, Fred, Albert and Brad - what a quartet that will be, we've already done a lot together with USV and I can’t wait with Andy on board to do even more with all of them.
For John, the big question is always #whatsnext?
I’d say that the rehearsals at TotalNewYork, AOL and Time Warner will end up leading to a very interesting performance. As the media industry deconstructs, new entities will emerge and take the place of the old ones. Yahoo and other first generation web media companies are withering before our eyes. But if the future of media continues to riff around the combination of big data, social distribution and light-weight applications, my sense is that the brand, skills, assets and capital base that John has bootstrapped at Betaworks sets him up pretty well to figure out what the Malone or Murdoch of the 21st century looks like.
Is it possible that from a small agile company that both builds and invests, a digitally native Liberty Media could emerge? That’s the bet that I think John is taking. I really hope I still get to take part in the next 16 years of the conversation, its for sure going to be an interesting ride :)