October 10, 2005

Beer and Loathing at Web2.0: Part Two

Last year's Web2.0 conference was held at Hotel Nikko elsewhere in San Francisco. This year the organizers had moved to The Argent. The Argent is a nice hotel but when I first laid eyes on the second floor conference space I thought, this is going to be too small. I was remembering the deafening insanity of the refreshment breaks and cocktail parties at the Nikko: six hundred people shouting at each other just to have some semblance of a legible conversation.

I went to look at the various rooms where the workshops were scheduled to take place. Most were quite small. There were going to be a lot of standing-room-only situations, I was certain. Although things were empty now, I could already picture the crowds. I could well imagine the stale oxygen-deprived air that would soon consume these rooms.

Late Tuesday afternoon I checked in at the registration desk. The lady asked for my last name. I gave it then added, "You're going to find two records in your database." She looked at me funny and then before she could respond, said, "You're right! There are two!"

I'd signed up for Web2.0 months ago. After I signed up, I continued to receive increasingly urgent reminders that I needed to sign up, as the conference was selling out. It was amazing how much spam I received for Web2.0, particularly after I had already paid the thousands of dollars to attend. I got spams to email addresses that I've never given to anyone, which made me wonder about the unsavory third parties the MediaLive/O'Reilly folks must be using for delivering their emails.

This is the second conference this year where I'd initially paid, and then months later found out the payment was unnecessary. First one was AlwaysOn Summit at Stanford. They invited me to attend as a blogger. This, after I'd already paid as an attendee. I went as the blogger. Come to think of it, I don't think they ever did refund me for that.

Recently I'd gotten invited to participate in a workshop at Web2.0 2005. Of course I said YES! Then, just a few days before the conference, I stumbled upon the knowledge that speakers, including workshop panelists, could attend the conference for free: registration to the full program was complimentary. I emailed the Web2.0 conference organizers and asked them if I could get a refund. They'd look into it, I was told. I asked again at the registration desk. Still looking into it. A week later, no news, but there's always hope. Web2.0 was not a cheap conference and a refund would be really, well, good. :-)

*   *   *

The workshop I was invited to participate in was entitled "Open Source Infrastructure." A Marc Canter creation, it would be a discussion on . . . well, I wasn't sure, since I wasn't sure what exactly what Marc meant by "Open Source Infrastructure." Infrastructure built with Open Source tools? That's been the way the Web's worked for many years. Open Infrastructures where everything is free and open and sharable and, did I mention, free? I worried that is what Marc meant. I decided the most valuable thing I could speak on was what efforts we already had underway to build a better Infrastructure for Open Sources. "Open Sources" meaning sources for event data everywhere, in other words. Distributed all over the web. So I put together six slides I was going to present during my introductory remarks in the workshop.

It was scheduled for 9:45am, the starting time for the second wave of workshops. The first wave was starting at 8:30. I couldn't attend any of them because, as I'd expected, they turned out to be standing-room-only affairs, with people out in the doorways and outer hallways straining to look and listen to what was going on inside. I'd made my way down to the conference around 8:15am, having gotten perhaps four hours of sleep after working on emails and the workshop slides. All the 8:30 workshops were filled up to the brim with attendees. I went to the Olympic room. Full. Even if there was a single seat here or there inside, there was a guard posted at the doorway, barring people from entering. The guard even refused to allow admission to one of the O'Reilly folks, co-organizers of the event. I wound up walking around outside the Olympic room during the first wave of workshops, catching bits and pieces of the panel discussion on Ajax and user interfaces from the hallway.

At one point I went and sat down on a bench near the Olympic. Andy Baio, creator of Upcoming.org which the night before had been acquired by Yahoo, came over and said hello. I pulled my PowerBook bag off the bench to make room for him to sit down.

I'd considered acquiring Upcoming many months earlier. I vividly recall how at ETech 2005 back in March, Andy had cornered me in the hallway during one of the noisy, crowded conference break sessions, begging me to acquire his project.

"Please, Brian, buy Upcoming!" I remember him pleading. "I just don't have the fascination or passion you have for events! Upcoming's just a hobby to me! Buy it so I can afford to go off and do the startup I want to do!"

Nothing came from that conversation; I hadn't even raised my "A" round yet, and Upcoming was at the time idle with barely any new features in months.

And then more recently, in late September, just a week before Web2.0, Andy had AIMed me. There was all kinds of chatter about the fact that a server named calendar.google.com now seemed to exist. Now, Google's calendar project is the worst-kept secret in the tech biz. And even though this server didn't do anything, its existence was enough to ignite fresh rumors all over the blogosphere. Andy asked me if I knew if Google was going to be getting into the event space with their much-rumored calendar application.

"Right..." I teased. "I guess you didn't get the memo." I added an emoticon smile.

Long pause.

"Apparently not," he said.

Another long pause.

"I'm kidding, Andy."

*   *   *

And then just the night before Web2.0, while I was working on the slides for the Workshop, someone had AIMed me the piping-hot news that Yahoo had just acquired Upcoming, and what did I think? I noticed at that same moment that Andy was online so I AIMed him to find out directly.

"What's all this about Yahoo... and Upcoming?"

"Didn't you get the memo?" came his lightning-fast reply, with an emoticon wink.

*   *   *

Now, here it was the morning of the first day of Web2.0 2005, and here we were, sitting on the same bench, me about to go on and participate in a workshop, Andy about to go onwards and participate in Yahoo, which I wasn't the only one to notice had a strangely dominant presence at this conference. They were everywhere, come to think of it. Attending. Speaking. Sponsoring. Exhibiting. Marc Canter was walking around complaining about Yahoo's takeover of Web2.0.

The Yahoo deal with Upcoming had come together only a few hours before last night's announcement, Andy told me. He was still dizzy with excitement. After a few minutes of small-talk, he got up to head off elsewhere into the conference.

"See you in the arena!" I said.

*   *   *

Yahoo had invited me up to visit back in August. I had no doubt they were already talking to Upcoming even then.

Frankly, the meeting did not leave me impressed. The meeting felt like a non-starter even before it started. A bunch of the expected people were there, but some had streamed in very late, or they didn't show up at all. It wasn't clear what the agenda was. They never quite explained why I was there; they were deliberately vague and they just wanted to know anything and everything I could tell them abut EVDB. At one point they wanted to know point-blank exactly how many events we had in our database. I told them point-blank I wasn't going to tell them that information. They told me, well, we'll just go crawl your site to find out. Actually, you're already doing that, I'd told them. I guess they didn't know.

I was not surprised when later that very week, Yahoo quietly launched an enhanced Yahoo!Local service . . . with local events listings buried deep within it. Funny, they never mentioned that at the meeting . . .

*   *   *

The thing that struck me the hardest about the first two days of Web2.0: the greed. The smell of money. The possibility of money. The imminence of money. Gobs of it. Truckloads. More than you could ever count. Huge, massive sums of money. The place was drenched in the presence of and desire for money. All of it. Now. Sooner than now. Gimme.

The buzz was exciting, exhilarating for some, clearly. But so much of what I saw felt like the go-go greed I haven't seen with such intensity since, gasp, 1999. Build-to-flip felt like it was now driving everything. I was nauseated when Business 2.0, a magazine I used to respect, had run its cover story -- what, a year ago? -- on the concept of build-to-flip. But it wasn't just a cover story. It was a how-to cover story. Ever noticed who advertises in Business 2.0? Take a look sometime. And it's not just the ads: it's become a lifestyle magazine, complete with reviews for Porsches and Bentleys. They ought to rename it Flipper: The Magazine for the Build-to-Flip Generation.

I don't want to flip EVDB. I was thinking about this every time someone at the conference would ask me, "So! When does EVDB get gobbled up for $75 million!" Gee, perhaps when it's worth $75 million and it makes total sense to have it "gobbled"? Two criteria, not just one.

This isn't a build-to-flip. We're building to grip here at EVDB. We're going to hold on and we're going to see the vision through. We're building tools for the whole world to gobble up and benefit from.

*   *   *

At breakfast, one person told me, "I see a lot of body parts, but very few bodies." This was a common observation of Web2.0: features galore, some products, but not a lot of businesses. One presenter even recommended that startups not bother doing a business plan.

Who, I wondered, who particularly among the startups premiering things for the first time at Web2.0, is really in it to change the world? Who, on the other hand, is just doing it to make a fast buck and move on to the next thing? Remember the subhead from that Business 2.0 cover story from a year ago: "How to get ahead in the postbubble world: Build a company cheap. Flip It fast. Repeat."

Gag me with a spoon.

*   *   *

This concludes Part Two of a series on the recently-concluded Web2.0 2005 conference. To be continued in Part Three . . .

Posted by brian at October 10, 2005 08:19 PM

Comments

Ah, Brian Dear, the Jerry Pournelle of the 21st Century!

Posted by: Jason Scott at October 10, 2005 11:17 PM

Good grief, no.

Posted by: Brian at October 11, 2005 06:59 AM

Brian, I like your post, but I take exception to your characterization of company flipping. Oddpost, the first company featured in the aforementioned Business 2.0 story, existed almost 4 years before it got sold to Yahoo - not exactly a quick flip. For most startups a sale to a company like Yahoo is a desirable and successful outcome. When is something not a flip, but a serious acquisition in your mind? Also, if someone builds a lot of value quickly and a big company sees that value, what's wrong with selling their company relatively soon and moving on to another project? I know many entrepreneurs who prefer that route to the alternative: take VC money, grow the company and get to a 5-10 times bigger valuation before you can sell the company at a price that makes your investors happy.

Posted by: Toni at October 11, 2005 11:14 AM

Toni:

I think it is the difference in perspective. You're seeing the dollar signs, some hope to create something really, really cool to change the world.

Typically when a smaller company gets bought up the buyer does not see the "vision."

This is not silly stuff. It's how so much of our technical lead came from. AOL and Compuserve are your model, the net is the model of others.

What this post is telling me is that the odds of open source wiping out the other games are increasing.

Posted by: observer at October 11, 2005 03:00 PM

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