Wednesday, June 29, 2005

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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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Briefly: The MIT Blogging Survey, Blog Submission

A group at MIT is conducting a survey of bloggers. I just completed it, takes about 10 minutes. It's an intriguing set of questions, and it will be interesting to see the results when posted in early July. The larger the sample they receive, the better their results will be, so if you've got a few minutes to devote to the study of blogging, click the image.

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

I also submitted this blog to Popdex, the Web site popularity index (probably dangerous in my case), as well as to Bloguniverse and Blogarama. I hope to make the Top 1 Billion list someday.

Search Popdex:


Blogarama - The Blog Directory

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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

What Tone Does Your Web Site Set?

Your Web site is often one of the first places where your prospects will form an impression of your company. What you say on your home page is critical, but how you say it is equally important. Your home page should clearly communicate three things:

- What your company does

- Why you’re the best (i.e. why I should want to do business with you)

- What you’d like me – a visitor to your site – to do next (e.g. call you, email you, read something, buy something, search for something, download something, etc.)

Your home page, and your site, also set a tone. Is it friendly and inviting, making me want to take the next step? Or is it in some way off-putting, giving me a less than ideal impression of your company?

We’ve all seen examples of sites that set a poor tone; cheesy, pompous, confusing, or just plain bland. Setting just the right tone to reflect the personality for your company that you’d like to convey (for example, professional yet pleasant) is challenging – but valuable, if done well.

I recently did some consulting work in the reinsurance sector (companies that sell insurance to insurance companies). There are few businesses more arcane or self-important, and predictably, many reinsurance Web sites are technically proficient but very dry. Yet even in this segment, I found two sites that managed to stand out, by conveying a tone that is fun and friendly without being inappropriate or unprofessional.

Alea Group uses hand-written notes on the home page and here to create a distinctively different, yet still professional tone (although there used to be more of this on the site; it appears that they have “dulled it down” recently, which is unfortunate).

The Watkins Syndicate site really stands out in this sector. It is effective, creative, and clever (click on “Arcade” or “Insert Coin” on the Home menu to play “Catasteriods”, an online version of the old, similarly-named arcade game).

For more on how to craft content that is both effective and inviting, I recommend
The Web Content Style Guide: An Essential Reference for Online Writers, Editors and Managers and Content Critical: Gaining Competitive Advantage through High-Quality Web Content, both by Gerry McGovern and Rob Norton, as useful references.

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Monday, June 13, 2005

Just Be Nice

This post has been revised and moved to Key to Social Media Success: Just be Nice on the Webbiquity blog.

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Selecting an Advertising Agency

How do you select the best marketing agency for your needs? Two new pages recently added to WebMarketCentral address this issue: "How to Choose an Ad Agency (Marketing Agency)" and "How to Write an Ad Agency RFP." Selecting an agency is a common enough practice that I had assumed there would be a wealth of advice on the Web pertaining to this, but when I googled phrases such as "choosing an advertising agency," "selection process for an ad agency," and "how to write an advertising agency RFP" I was surprised at how little (of value) I could find. So, drawing on a small amount of research and a large amount of experience, I put these pages up on the site.

That said, I did find a few pieces of interest. RFPs seem to be a highly controversial topic, with some authors detailing how to create the perfect RFP while others recommend not using one at all. In "How to Find, Evaluate & Hire an Adertising Agency" from agencyfinder.com, it's argued that companies should use an RFI (request for information) rather than an RFP (request for proposal), which is largely a matter of semantics; the important point is to gather specific information from each agency on your "intermediate" list to help you narrow your list down to those agencies you want to invite for presentations. Beyond that however, this article makes some good points about looking for pertinent experience and taking a tour of the agency before making a final decision.

On the pro-RFP side, in "Details, Details: Writing an RFP" from Direct magazine, Katie Muldoon outlines some of the important information to ask for in an RFP, and Kevin Labick at MarketingProfs does the same here; both articles are helpful, although neither provides a formal outline.

On the anti-RFP side are Alison Glander's "Drowning in RFPs" from Promo magazine, and "Why RFP's (sic) Are A Bad Idea" from the Business of Business Marketing blog. Glander argues not so much against RFPs in general as against bad RFPs, particularly those that result in either no business for any agency or in a much smaller project than initially indicated. She provides an excellent perspective on what makes for a good RFP from the agency perspective. The blog piece is more directly dismissive of RFPs entirely, although the author acknowledges the need to ask questions of agencies regarding "their position, methodology, resources or credentials" as well as references -- which, to me, is the point of an RFP.

The bottom line is that whether you call it an RFP, an RFI, or something completely different, a well-crafted document -- one that provides enough information about your company and your objectives to enable an agency to determine if they can provide value, and that respects their time by avoiding excessive, unnecessary or intrusive questions -- helps to clarify your agency evaluation process and to establish a relationship, with the right agency, on a positive note.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

New Beginnings

I'm just about finished reading "Rough Edges: My Unlikely Road From Welfare To Washington" by Jim Rogan, the incredible story of how Rogan rose from an extremely tough start in life - unwed mother on welfare, alcoholic step-father - to become a two-term Congressman from California and later Undersecretary of Commerce and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office in the Bush administration. Regardless of your political leanings (this book is heavy on the autobiography, light on the politics), Rogan's story is compelling and highly entertaining. This isn't a book for the prudish - many of the characters in Rogan's early life used rather raw language at times, and he quotes them accordingly - but if you can handle that, the book is by turns very funny, tragic, and inspiring.

I thought of this book when putting together my portal site for Web marketers, WebMarketCentral.com, because of two key lessons I took from it. One, that life throws all of us curveballs (though thankfully for most of us these don't include having to pull a gun on a drunken Hell's Angel, as Rogan once had to), always surprising, sometimes very difficult and downright unfair. We can't control these external events or circumstances, but we do have control over how we react to them. Two, that having a plan, and doing the research to back it up, are the keys to success in any endeavor, in politics, business, or life in general.

So, life having thrown me a nasty curveball recently in the form of an unexpected career change, I decided to build a site for Web marketing professionals; I hope that you find it of value. In doing my research before setting up the site, I found a few other sites that were something like what I had in mind, but not quite what I envisioned and felt was needed; one comprehensive site that included all of the resources needed by Web marketing and e-commerce pros.

You may find Rogan's book inspiring as well, or get your inspiration elsewhere. You may already have faced curveballs and taken a leap, or you may still be considering it. We are fortunate to live in a time and place(s) where we have the freedom to try to make our life dreams come true. There is lots of opportunity out there, so if you have an idea for a business, do your research. For example, unless you've got some really extraordinary "secret sauce," don't even think of starting up a Web hosting company (there are thousands of them out there).

Best of luck to you in dealing with the curveballs in your life.

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