I’ve made my living from my ideas and hard work for my entire life. I’ve been a magician (seriously), sold cheesecakes to local restaurants, run an internet service provider, built web applications, mobile applications, consulted with fortune 500 companies and even record a video or two with my latest venture.
The common thing in all of what I’ve done is that I’ve had to make more that I spend. It’s simple but revenue was always on my mind with each venture. I watched, and even participated a little, in the awesome insanity that was the dot com bubble. This was where my belief systems were rocked – it turns out that the guys that made the most money weren’t at all concerned with making money in the first place. I slaved, built, sold then slaved again to build a business based on revenue and profits. When I could afford it, I would hire. When I could afford it, I would upgrade technology. When I could afford it, I would hit the road for trade shows. You know, old school business.
I thought that if you didn’t make one more dollar than you spent you were out of business.
Silly me indeed.
The bubble bursting was a wake up call that common sense could have predicted. The common sense that says you can’t sell nothing and stay in business. The common sense that says you can’t play on the public markets without a long view. The common sense that says it really can’t be that easy, can it?
All of a sudden, I didn’t feel as though I was the only one that didn’t get it. Perhaps I did and there was just an odd moment in time where we suspended truth and reality and started to believe the rules of business had changed for good.
We all know how that ended, don’t we?
The thing is, all the work that was put into building out the technology that dotted the internet era was not lost. In the 10 years since those days some of the most influential and generational businesses have been borne of the efforts and lessons we learned during that time. Companies for the ages like Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are results of failed and successful attempts by others along this path. Mega corporations like eTrade and WalMart have become so good at leveraging technology as to remove friction and surplus from the supply chain to bring product to shelves and into consumers home faster and cheaper than ever before. Technology bellwethers like Apple and Google have re-imagined the possibilities and invented experiences we could only dream of or watch on Star Trek – all built over the last ten years, all enabled by the internet era. There really isn’t a company in existence today that doesn’t touch the skeletons of the dot com era.
During those same 10 years a perfect storm of higher speed cellular networks, Moore’s Law and continued innovation has brought us back to the realm of the imagination. This time we aren’t chained to our desktops. This time we are a little more ready for it. This time there are billions of consumers looking for services instead of a billion websites looking for customers. This is a huge difference.
The difference is obvious.
Take a look around you right now. How many people are lugging laptops out to lunch with them? How many are sitting on a bus tapping away on a full size keyboard? This mobile thing is as pervasive as air today – well, at least enabled by spectrum carried by air.
Innovation runs rampant – more so than the Internet era because of the incredibly low barrier of entry. Developers need an iPhone and a basement to develop revolution-making software and they do it in weeks instead of months. They do it with borrowed data, burstable bandwidth and rented cloud space. Then they set it free to hundreds of thousands of waiting screens. This is truly an incredible time to be a maker.
Being a maker versus being a business
Making an application isn’t the challenge anymore – not when there are over a million apps available in the various app stores that have been downloaded billions of times. The making is happening quickly, the making of businesses isn’t and this is where I wonder how this shakes out in the coming years.
Do you need to make money in mobile during this part of the ride? Can you build a business based on downloads, users, check-ins, photo sharing or likes? Does that sound too much like eyeballs and unique visitors or page views? Is this any different? Should we be worried we are just putting a whole lot of money into a whole lot of companies that will create a whole lot of misery in a short while?
Take a look at companies like Foursquare and Instagram – both companies whose products I use and love but both of whom I question their ability to turn on revenue. They have roughly the same user base at close to 15 million each. They are both not as concerned about revenue as they are about ensuring the user experience is one that their users love. They are both funded to focus on growing their user base and not to worry about ways to make money yet. They are both heralded as early leaders and their CEO’s lauded with the visionary label but do they deserve these monikers? Would guys like Gates and Jobs and Branson and Bezos be considered visionaries or leaders had their ventures not returned on the money invested?
Looking back at the way the dot com era fostered innovative thinking it is hard to think that what I’m about to write makes sense – given the incredible destruction the fallout did to our economy, not to mention our psyche – but I wonder if this first salvo into mobile, the one we are witnessing right now, the way-finding, the stumbles, the grand ideas, the creative destruction, the jubilance, the excitement and the ridiculous needs to happen in order for us to find a way to make money in this industry.
Unfettered, unabashed and untethered thinking creates great change – eventually. Flight, moon shots, interplanetary travel were dreamt, have seen the fruits of bountiful investment and will eventually be commercialized but have not found the perfect profit mechanism yet (including commercial airlines). Does that mean we stop? Ask Richard Branson about that. He is about to rocket a bunch of celebrities into space because of the investment and hard work over the past 50 years.
Mobile is that kind of change. In a few short years much of what we do today will be touched, disrupted, enhanced or destroyed (and rebuilt) by what we are inventing now. The revenue? It will come but it won’t seem as forced or disjointed or unnatural as it is today and in order for that to happen, we have to let go our previous notions.
This is a new world with new opportunities and the ones that understand that we’ve never seen something like this before will see – and seize – them. The rest? Well, they’ll call it a bubble.