Jan 052017
 
the web is new neon sign

How do you make money from online publishing? Medium’s Ev Williams shows he is as far away from the answer as the rest of us.

In a blog post yesterday Ev announced his company is firing fifty staff as online advertising revenues fall short.

Online advertising’s disappointing revenues are no surprise to pretty well anyone observing the online publishing industry for the past five years, it seems to have come as a revelation to Ev and the investors who’ve staked an estimated $140 million in the venture.

That money, which most online publishers would gag for, seems to have gone on a bloated headcount given the company can afford to fire fifty people. It’s a shame the company’s investors didn’t appoint a board that checked management’s hiring practices.

Something that should worry other publishers is the organisation’s Promoted Stories division is being shut down as part of the restructure. This underscores how branded content doesn’t scale the same way traditional advertising does and won’t represent a major revenue stream for online publications.

It isn’t the first time Ev Williams has got it wrong, in founding Twitter he and his team turned their back on ordinary users and developers to focus on courting celebrities in the hope big brands would pay large amounts to be associated with them. It didn’t work.

Contrasting Ev’s Twitter and Medium experiences with that of Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti is interesting. While Buzzfeed still hasn’t found the formula for profitability, Peretti and his team have gained a deep understanding of what works in online publishing.

To be fair to Ev, we’re all trying to figure out the revenue model that will work for online media, his travails with Twitter and Medium show just how hard it is to find a way for publishers to make money from the web. What is clear though is burning a lot of cash on sales staff is not the answer.

Dec 222015
 

Before the web came along, advertising for the local plumber or hairdresser was just a matter of placing an ad in the local newspaper and a listing in the Yellow Pages. Then the internet and smartphones swamped those channels.

One of the greatest missed opportunities has been small business online advertising. With the demise of phone directories, particularly the Yellow Pages, it’s been hard, time consuming and expensive for smaller traders to cut through the online noise.

This market should have been Google’s for the taking however the local search platform has been drifting for years in the face of company apathy, mindless bureaucracy and silly name changes to fit in with the Google Plus distraction.

While Facebook has been playing in the local business space for a while they are now ramping up another service with a new site for local services search.

TechCrunch reports Facebook are experimenting with the local search function and while it isn’t anywhere near as comprehensive as Google’s at present the rich data the social media service has been able to harvest could well make it a far more useful tool.

However it’s not Facebook’s first attempt and Apple too has been playing in this space albeit with little traction.

If Facebook or Apple does usurp Google, the search engine giant will only have itself to blame for missing the opportunity as it was distracted by loss making ventures while letting potentially lucrative services pass.

The local business search market should be a lucrative opportunity for the business that gets it right. It may well be that all the big tech giants are unable to make this market work.

Aug 072015
 
the web is new neon sign

Michael Rubenstein, President of AppNexus is the first interview for a while on the Decoding the New Economy channel.

Rubenstein joined AppNexus as employee number 18 in 2009 and has been part of the company’s growth from a small startup to a global technology company with a workforce of 1,000 professionals.

AppNexus is one of the new wave of companies managing and programming online advertising, helping advertisers and publishers target their products better while giving ad tech companies deeper insights and data.

In this interview, Rubenstein discusses some of the forces changing global advertising along with the challenges of dealing with a high growth business.

Apologies for the bad hair on my part.

Aug 052015
 

“The days of getting a PhD to get your businesses online are over” declared James Carroll, GoDaddy’s International Executive Vice President last week on a visit to Sydney.

GoDaddy is the world’s biggest internet domain name registration service and Carroll was in Australia to promote the expansion of the company’s local operations.

Australia’s a prime target for the company with nearly half the nation’s two million businesses not having a web presence. “I think there’s an awareness issue about the skill that are needed to get online,” says Carroll.

GoDaddy’s Australia and New Zealand country manager Tara Commerford suggested two reasons why small businesses aren’t going online, “I think it’s lack of awareness and people don’t know how to do it”.

Commerford suggests that simplified online tools are making it easier along with the easy access to other platforms like social media and location online services.

The problem though is these tools are not new, this blog has been discussing how companies need to get online for years and yet the proportion of small businesses getting a web presence has remained fixed around the fifty percent mark.

One of the barriers to getting online is confusion and the new top level domains haven’t helped this by muddying the message about which domains they should be registering under. This is only increasing the fear among small business owners that going online is complex, expensive and risky.

It’s understandable that domain registrars like GoDaddy would push the new domains given the industry’s low margins and need for scale, but that’s not the problem for smaller operators.

The problem for small businesses is getting the basics right with with a mobile friendly website, particularly for hospitality and tourism operators. Having the right domain name is an important first start of an important journey for most businesses.

Jan 282015
 

The stunning quarterly results of Apple announced yesterday compared to Microsoft’s indifferent performance illustrate how the fortunes of two different business cultures have changed.

Apple yesterday announced a spectacular result for its quarter finishing at the end of last year with  revenues up 30%, profits by 38% and Earnings Per Share just short of fifty percent.

The announcement was an emphatic vindication for Tim Cook and his management team who made some big bets on the larger form factor iPhone 6 which paid off spectacularly with shipments growing 46% to 74.5 million and revenue reaching $51.2 billion, over two thirds of the company’s total sales.

One notable aspect of Apple’s success is the difference with Microsoft’s and this shows how different business cultures come in and out of fashion.

The Triumph of the MBA

For two decades Microsoft’s licensing business model was dominant and this confirmed the MBA view that companies should do everything they can to move design, research, manufacturing and distribution out of their operations – the virtual corporation where there was no inventory, few costs and even fewer risks was the ultimate aim of the modern manager at the turn of the century.

Microsoft encapsulated this philosophy with its licensing model, while the company made massive sales with huge margins – as it still does – all the business risks in the computer market were carried by resellers and equipment manufacturers. For many years the markets loved this.

Apple tinkered with the licensing model under John Sculley in the mid 1990s during Steve Jobs’ exile but was never really serious about giving away its hardware capabilities and in 2001 moved into retail with the opening of the first Apple Store.

Coupled with the App Store, Apple have come to control the entire customer journey from marketing, design, purchase and ongoing revenue after the product is bought.

King of the new Millennium

While the 1980s and 90s were the time of triumph for the Microsoft model, the 2000s have been good to Apple as shown by the revenue and profit figures.

Apple and Microsoft Revenues 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Revenues 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Profits 2000-2014

Apple and Microsoft Profits 2000-2014

The key inflection point in these charts is, of course, the iPhone’s release in 2007. Apple caught the wave of change as computer use switched from personal computers to smartphones and is now the dominant vendor.

For Microsoft the success of Apple is bittersweet; the company had a smartphone operating system in Windows CE but it was too early to the market and the devices vendors went to market with were, at best, substandard.

Microsoft’s failure with the smartphone was also echoed with tablet computers and exposed the licensing model’s reliance on vendors to supply and support decent products, even today Microsoft’s hardware partners struggle to release decent tablet systems.

Cloudy on the web

Another problem that exposed Microsoft’s weaknesses was the rise of the web where hardware and operating systems really did matter so much any more. Along with pushing out personal computer lifecycles it also had the consequence of allowing other systems into the marketplace, notably Linux and Google Android.

With OS X, Android and Linux systems no longer hampered with the compatibility issues that irritated non-Windows users in the 1990s the market was open to adopting those systems. While the PC market has remained quite loyal to Windows, although the Apple Macs are showing serious growth as well, Microsoft’s system has barely any marketshare in other device segments except servers which are also declining as business increasingly move to cloud services.

Apple have shown in the computing and smartphone business that controlling the hardware products is as important as supplying the software, a lesson that Microsoft now acknowledges with its restructure into a ‘Devices and Services’ company under former CEO Steve Ballmer.

The problem for Microsoft is its margins for hardware are a fraction of its own licensing operations and weak compared to Apple’s returns. Microsoft makes 14% profit on its phone operations while the iPhone is estimated to deliver over 60%.

Under current CEO Satya Nadella Microsoft is focusing on cloud services which also aren’t as profitable as its legacy operations but see it competing with companies like Amazon and Google who don’t boast the profits from their online operations that Apple makes from its hardware.

Microsoft aside, the lesson Apple gives the technology is pertinent for its competitors in the smartphone space as well; companies like Samsung, LG and the army of Chinese handset vendors are going to find their markets tough unless they can take control of their software development and distribution channels – relying on Google for Android and telcos to get their phones to customers leaves them exposed in similar ways to Microsoft’s partners in the last decade.

In the battle between business models, Apple is the current winner and shows throwing all of your business operations over the fence to partners and licensees is a risky strategy. How those lessons are applied in other sectors will test the limits of both management philosophies.

Photo of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates by Joi Ito through Flickr

Dec 312014
 

2015 will feature more boneheaded moves as over valued companies try to meet investors’ expectations, a good example is Twitter adding sponsored accounts to its lists service.

The move by Twitter, reported by Search Engine Land’s Danny Sullivan, is another attempt by the service to get revenues that justify the company’s ten billion dollar valuation. While adding little income, the move further erodes trust in the service.

Illustrating the investment mania home delivery service Instacart announced it had raised $220 million, an amount that values the company at two billion dollars.

That home delivery services are again the investment flavour of the time is a worry given similar stakes marked the peak of the first Dot Com Boom in 2000. Whether today’s equivalents are any more sustainable will be one of the questions for 2015.

Another question for 2015 will be whether Twitter can crack the magic code and justify its valuation.

Happy New Year.

Dec 282014
 

After twenty years the Yahoo! Directory closed down five days early reports Search Engine Land.

The rise and and fall of Yahoo!’s core product illustrates both the volatility of the web and how the underlying dynamics of the internet has changed; at the time Yahoo! Directory was launched, we were struggling the task of keeping track of all the information being posted online.

Even in those early days it was clear that task was becoming unmanageable and this was the problem Google set out to solve and its success destroyed the directory business along with a whole range of other industries.

Yahoo! Directories’ demise needs to be noted by today’s web and social media giants; just as these technologies are disrupting old industries, new businesses aren’t immune to those changes.