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Backflip: A Dot-Com Survivor Story

Hundreds (at least) of Web-based businesses were launched in the late 90's with a business model of giving away a cool tool or service while earning revenue through advertising. While a few of these have survived intact -- and a few more survived by radically changing their business models -- most have disappeared.

One interesting survivor is Backflip.com. This is an online bookmark service, which I have found very useful in doing research, particularly for collaborative research projects. Like the Bookmarks or Favorites feature in your browser, Backflip lets you note Web pages for later revisiting and categorize them into folders and subfolders. Beyond what your browser can do, however, Backflip lets you 1) access your bookmarks from any computer, 2) keep your bookmarks (selectively) private, make them public, or share them with a defined group, and 3) search within your Backflipped pages. Here is the company's story.

Backflip was started in 1999 by Netscape veterans Tim Hickman and Chris Misner. The company’s original board and investors included Jennifer Bailey, a former VP at Netscape; Ron Conway, general partner at Angel Investors; J. Neil Weintraut, a general partner at 21st Century Internet Venture Partners; and Robert Keller, general partner at Rosewood Venture Group. The basics of the founding and ownership were included in all of the company’s press releases, such as this one from May 2000 announcing the expansion of their service to wireless devices.

The company raised a bunch of money (including $4 million of start-up funding and $14 million in second-round funding in July 2000 as reported here and here) that it used to build up its staff and make acquisitions such as that of smaller competitor MyBookmarks in April 2000.

There’s a basic profile of Backflip here; the email address is, I believe, still current, but the phone number is no longer in service. Forbes did a profile article on the company in December 1999; the company also received press coverage from Salon explaining their product and business model in March 2000 and an interesting perspective on the company was presented in this Kaiser newsletter.

In November 2000, however, the company collapsed – part of the dot-com meltdown, as Weintraut ousted Hickman from the CEO slot; Misner was kept on to run day-to-day operations, but it isn’t clear whether he is still involved with the company or not. Weintraut had his own public folder on Backflip for several months covering – what else – venture capital. The folder has since been taken down, but the cached version was still available on Google until very recently -- at least through January 2005 (Google's cache doesn't seem to be what it used to be); Weintraut’s last entry was from August 2000. Here’s a brief bio of Weintraut:

Neil Weintraut
Partner
21st Century Internet Venture Partners

"Neil Weintraut is a Silicon Valley VC specializing in New Economy companies, and frequent author and commentator about Internet business. Neil is a partner at 21st Century Internet Venture Partners (21VC), which has backed Internet startups, such as AdForce, CareerBuilder, and When.com. Other companies in the 21VC family include BigWords, AvantGo, and Backflip. Prior to 21VC, Neil built and lead the Internet practice at Hambrecht & Quist, underwriting Internet pioneers such as Netscape, UUNET, Lycos, cnet, E*Trade, and VocalTec. "

I wasn’t able to find much about the other principals in the company, but Ron Conway is a very interesting guy, the subject of book titled “The Godfather of Silicon Valley: Ron Conway and the Fall of the Dot-coms,” a fascinating excerpt of which can be found here. Conway threw elaborate parties with rock bands and guests like Warren Buffet, Ben Affleck and Goldie Hawn.

Conway and partner Bob Bozeman invested in a wide range of dot-coms, at least half of which are no longer active. The Angel Investors Web site informs visitors that it is “no longer making new investments.”

As a research tool, Backflip is clearly of value to the education community, and that community (or at least certain segments) has certainly embraced Backflip. A Google search of sites that contain the term “Backflip.com” results in numerous education-related links, including Teacher Tools, in several links on this educational subject-related site, as a favorite site for educators here, and even as part of an assignment on this Internet in the Classroom site.

As for the business model, it appears that Backflip’s current free-service-supported-by-advertising model is generating enough cash to keep the servers running, though probably not much more than that. The existing free service model is great for generating traffic, if not income; it appears there would be potential for a "premium" service offering features such as the ability to search within folders, ad-free and corporate-branded options, RSS feed creation ability, etc. But for now, the small group that saved Backflip seems content to leave it as is - simple, useful, and free.

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