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I’ve been a long time fan and supporter of the work of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation in Kansas City. In the mid 1990’s, I was an “entrepreneur-in-residence” there, which was basically a fancy phrase for “consultant” (I spent a day a month working on a set of programs run by Jana Matthews called “Learning Programs for High Growth Entrepreneurs.”) One of the tangential things I was involved in was Entreworld – a web site on entrepreneurship sponsored by the Kauffman Foundation. It remains one of the richest sites on the web for learning about entrepreneurship and I recommend it highly.
Periodically I write an article for Entreworld. Recently, they asked me to write an article about a “35,000 foot view of the Internet today from an entrepreneur’s perspective.” I wrote the article on a flight back from visiting my wife in Paris – I thought the title was appropriate given that I was on a plane at around 35,000 feet up at the time. The article follows and can also be found on the Entreworld web site.
The Internet at 35,000 Feet, Circa 2005
As a software entrepreneur and early-stage investor since 1985, I’ve experienced (and contributed – for better and for worse) to the dramatic rise, fall, and rise again of the Internet as it has become deeply embedded in all aspects of life and business, particularly, entrepreneurship. Today, as I sit on a Delta Airlines airplane on a trip home from a week in Paris, I’ll give you a figurative view of the Internet from 35,000 feet, as it applies to entrepreneurs, while experiencing a literal view.
Prediction and Perspective
First, a prediction: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” I expect that the way entrepreneurs interact with the Internet (and with computers in general) will be as radically different 20 years from now as it was 20 years ago. In 1985, when I traveled to Paris, even doing something as simple as making a telephone call to the United States was expensive and difficult (especially if you don’t speak any French). Forget about having access to your email (which wasn’t ubiquitous anyway, so it didn’t really matter). When I was in Paris last week, I was connected 100 percent of the time in several ways: my laptop (via a wireless DSL connection in the apartment we rented); my Tmobile Sidekick II (always on email); telephone (my regular U.S. number); the Web and AOL instant messenger–except when I turned it off at night (so someone in the United States calling my number wouldn’t wake me up); and Skype (free VoIP calling from my laptop).
Just for perspective as to how far we have come, on the way to the airport, the taxi driver asked me which terminal I was going to. I was clueless, but I whipped out my Sidekick, went to Google, typed “charles de gaulle paris delta,” and the first entry that came up five seconds later had “Terminal 2C” in the first sentence. The entire experience took less than 30 seconds. In 1985, we would have gone from terminal to terminal until I found the right one (or even worse, the taxi driver would have dropped me off at Terminal 1, and I would have had to struggle with my luggage and a bus to get the Terminal 2C).
Things Have Changed
So today entrepreneurs are starting with an always-connected world. This has dramatically lowered the friction involved in communication. The nasty side effect is that it’s hard to get people’s attention in real time, and handheld email devices like the Sidekick and the Blackberry generate “low attention span behavior.” This, however, is a correctable phenomenon, and the benefit of being able to be easily connected whenever you choose far outweighs the short-term rudeness from people who can’t “keep it in their pocket” while you are talking to them.
Today, even a company founder can now be a content publisher. While everyone who uses email generates a lot of content (I like to joke that a big part of my job is to be a professional emailer, phone caller, and Board meeting attendee), new forms of one-too-many communication mediums are appearing that increase an individual’s reach. A year ago, I started writing a blog, which, if you aren’t familiar with the idea, is my own personal Web site. It is easy for me to maintain and update. I write about a variety of topics, including venture capital, entrepreneurship, the activities of my companies, book reviews, and some of my personal exploits. Within a year, I’ve developed a daily readership of more than 2,500 people from all over the world that is currently growing at roughly 25 percent a month. Twenty years ago, putting out a simple newsletter once a month to 2,500 people would have been a giant production-and it probably would have cost about $5,000. Today, I can post articles daily for virtually no cost on an annual basis.
I don’t go to the store anymore. In 2000, the promise of e-commerce reached a staggering crescendo and then crashed on the rocks of a major stock market nosedive, followed by a series of events that dramatically reconfigured the technology industry. However, in 2003, things started to look up again, and today those of us who were investing heavily in e-commerce in 2000 can sheepishly (although in some cases proudly) say, “We were right.” If you sell goods or services, the Internet and the Web should be a major part of your infrastructure-both for direct sales of products, as well as promotion for your company. As broadband continues to spread throughout the United States, the preponderance of people like me who happily buy as much as they can over the Web will continue.
Now for the Bad News
But – all of this still doesn’t work very well. Here’s the problem. While the Web and my email are my primary user interface and access point to how I interact with my computer (while I do use Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and a handful of other desktop applications, the vast majority of software I use is now Web-based), I continue to spend a ridiculous amount of time interacting with my computer infrastructure. I have to remember passwords for numerous Web sites. I have to manually navigate through the same things over and over again to get to the content that I want. I am constantly entering new data into the various Web applications that I use, and I regularly have thoughts like, “Why can’t the computer do this for me?” And I like using the computer! I pity the vast majority of humans who don’t like using it.
Today, while entrepreneurs can be completely connected, there is very little user-centric intelligence going on. The techies that make everything run understand this and are starting to shift their focus to this issue. However, we are taking baby steps compared to where we should be. Over the next few years, you’ll hear the phrases Web 2.0, Web services, XML, and API continually-these are all names for technical building blocks that start to connect different software applications at a data level, which is the first-and critical-step to increasing the relevance of what your computer does for you on a daily basis.
In 1995 at a Young Entrepreneurs Organization (YEO) national conference, I gave a talk on the Internet. When I asked the question, “How many of you have email?” only about five people in the standing-room-only gathering of 200 raised their hands. If I asked the question again today, I’d bet there’d be only five people who didn’t raise their hands. But if I asked the question, “How many of you continue to be mystified and frustrated by your computer because it doesn’t do enough for you, is too hard to use, and continues to get more complex as it gets embedded in your every day work life?” I’d expect most of the hands would stay up. We’ve made a lot of progress in the past 20 years, getting technology in general-and the Internet, in particular-to work for entrepreneurs. However, we’ve got a long way to go. Stay tuned for an even more exciting time ahead.