venture capital

BuzzFeed: An Open Letter to Ben Horowitz

 

Ben Horowitz, the erudite cofounder of the Andreessen Horowitz (A16z) firm is a respected heavyweight in the Silicon Valley’s venture capital milieu. But A16z’s $50m BuzzFeed funding looks surprisingly ill-advised, to say the least. 

From: frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com
To: Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz, Menlo Park, California
Re: A16z investment in BuzzFeed
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Dear Ben:

May I ask you something? How long did you spend on BuzzFeed before deciding to invest $50m? I’m not talking of Jonah Peretti’s PowerPoint deck or spreadsheets, which, I’m sure, must be quite compelling. But did you sample the real thing, the BuzzFeed site?

And how many times a day do you log in? Please, don’t tell me it’s part of your mandatory media diet, I’ll have to struggle not to express polite disbelief.

Frankly, your investment leaves me bewildered.

Judging by your blog and your remarkable book (I energetically proselytize both), you embody a mixture of vista, courage, combining focus on details with broad systemic vision, all supported by deep hands-on experience.

In addition, you are of the generous type and I was even happier to buy two copies of your book (including a paper version for a friend) knowing all proceeds will go to Women in the Struggle — a noble cause.

In short Ben, I have a great deal of respect for you. You are the type of person our modern economy needs.

Except that I don’t share your vision of the news business. In fact, I’m standing at the polar opposite of it.

Let me be clear: I do not question the goals and means of the VC business you’re in. In fact, I think this extraordinary ecosystem of financing innovation has long been a vital booster to the economy. Whenever I get the opportunity, I preach this in France, only to find out that my plea is beyond the cognitive grasp of the French governing elite (our VC perimeter is 33 times smaller than yours for a GDP only 6 times smaller.) The whole system sounds fine to me:  investors gives you money — $4.15bn for Andreessen Horowitz at my last count —  your mission is to multiply, you create scores of high qualified jobs. Great.

But is BuzzFeed really such a good multiplier?

Obviously, you know more than I do about BuzzFeed’s long term’s prospects: Impressive growth, heavy reliance to technology. From a pure business perspective tough, I would be very careful to put other people’s money in a traffic-machine that depends for 75% on social referrals because not all clicks are born equal. BF’s are myriad, but they are worth a tiny fraction of, say, a click on The New York Times.

I spent some time trying to overcome my reluctance to BuzzFeed’s editorial content. I wanted to to convince myself that I might be wrong, that BuzzFeed could in fact embody some version of journalism’s future. But if that’s the case, I will quickly resettle in a remote place of New Mexico or Provence.

BuzzFeed is to journalism what Geraldo is to Walter Cronkite. It sucks. It is built on meanest of readers’ instincts. These endless stream of crass listicles are an insult to the human intelligence and goodness you personify. Even Business Insider, a champion practitioner of cheap click-bait schemes, looks like The New York Review of Books compared to BuzzFeed. And don’t tell me that, by hiring a couple of “seasoned editors and writers” as the PR spin puts it, BuzzFeed will become a noble and notable contributor of information. We never saw a down/mass market product morphing into a premium media. You can delete as many posts as you wish, it won’t alter BF’s peculiar DNA.

Fact is, quality content does exist in BuzzFeed (an example here), but in the same way as a trash can contains leftovers of good food: you must go deep to find it.  It won’t change the fact that what people enjoy the most on BuzzFeed is unparalleled ability to package, organize and disseminate mediocrity broken down in this promising nomenclature:

334-buzzfeed

Ben, don’t tell me you’re proud of A16z investment in BuzzFeed. By funding it, you are contributing to the intellectual decrepitude of readers, the youngest ones especially — already severely damaged by Facebook and Snapchat sub-cultures. Did it ever cross your mind that these people are going to vote some day?

Two years ago, one of your competitors, the Founders Fund (I believed it held values similar to yours) published an essay titled What Happened to the Future?. Their article outlines the conflict between “funding transformational technologies (like search or mobility)” and supporting “companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems”. Do you realize that, by funding a company such as BuzzFeed, you fall on the wrong side of the fence?

Look, I’ve no problem to see BuzzFeed or The HuffingtonPost thrive. They’re run by super-smart people (such as this one) who developed audience-building techniques that legacy media should pay more attention to.

What bothers me the most is to see smart money such as A16z’s being diverted to such a shallow product.

Ben: You want to invest in the information business? Consider what the Sandler Family did with ProPublica: they provided the seed money for a fantastic public interest journalism project (which, in passing, snatched two Pulitzers). Technology-driven ProPublica is now financially autonomous. Or consider emulating Pierre Omidyar who supports First Look Media, which promotes the kind of journalism a democracy badly needs.

Of course, these two ventures won’t produce VC-caliber ROI, but you already have plenty of items in A16z portfolio to keep your investors salivating. So, why wallow in BuzzFeed?

And if you want to put your excess of cash into something even more meaningful, hop on a Netjets plane and go to Africa. I recently bumped into an investment banker from Lazard who gave me the full picture of the economic potential of African countries, in every possible field — including leapfrogging technologies that build on the explosion of the mobile internet. For that matter, I’m personally exploring opportunities and the development of mobile apps for health and education in poor countries (a non-profit project). I started modestly by lending an Android phone and other items to an eye surgeon who runs (pro-bono) surgery campaigns in Sub-Saharian Africa. After her last campaign in Burkina-Faso last spring, we debriefed and the conclusions are staggering in terms of demand and opportunities. And I know the same thing is happening with mobile education. I decided to put €10,000 of my own money, just to see some of the ideas I’m nurturing could fly. If I were you Ben, I’d put a million dollars to explore this. And if I were running A16z, I would invest millions in long-term projects such as the automated large-cargo drones system described at the end of Alexis Madrigal’s recent story in The Atlantic that could change a whole continent economy. Or in mobile phone-based projects in Africa funded by PlaNetFinance Group or others. Tech investment in developing countries is indeed a Next Big Thing — much bigger than listicles. Risks and upsides are both huge. Right up your alley.

Best regards,

—Frederic Filloux

Schibsted’s High Octane Diversification

 

The Norwegian media group Schibsted now aggressively invests in startups. The goal: digital dominance, one market at a time. France is in next in line. Here is a look at their strategy. 

This thought haunts most media executives’ sleepless nights:My legacy business is taking a hit from the internet; my digital conversion is basically on track, but it goes with an massive value destruction. We need both a growth engine and consolidation. How do we achieve this? What are our core assets to build upon? Should we undertake a major diversification that could benefit from our brand and know-how?” (At that moment, the buzzer goes off, it’s time to go to work.) Actually, such nighttime cogitations are a good sign, they are the privilege of people gifted with long term view.

The Scandinavian media power house Schibsted ASA falls into the long-termist category.  Key FY 2012 data follow. Revenue: 15bn Norwegian Kroner (€2bn or $2.6bn.); EBIT: 13.5%. The group currently employs 7800 people spread over 29 countries. 40% of the revenue and 69% of the EBITDA come from online activities. Online classifieds account for 25% of revenue and 52% of the EBITDA; the rest in publishing. (The usual disclosure: I worked for Schibsted between 2007 and 2009, in the international division).

The company went through the delicate transition to digital about five years ahead of other media conglomerates in the Western world. To be fair, Schibsted enjoyed unique conditions: profitable print assets, huge penetration in small Nordic markets immune to foreign players, a solid grasp of all components of the business, from copy sales to subscribers for newspapers and magazines, to advertising and distribution channels. In addition, the group enjoys a stable ownership structure (controlled by a trust), and its board always encourages the management to aim high and take risks. The company is led by a lean team: only 60 people at the Oslo headquarters to oversee the entire operations, largely staffed by McKinsey alumni.

The transition began in 1995 when Schibsted came to realize the media sector’s center of gravity would inevitably shift to digital. The move could be progressive for reading habits but it would definitely be swift and hard for critical revenue streams such as classifieds and consumer services. Hence the unofficial motto that’s still remains at the core of Schibsted’s strategy: Accelerating the inevitable (before the inevitable falls on us). Such view led to speeding up the demise of print classifieds, for instance, in order to free oxygen for emerging digital products. Not exactly popular at the time but, thanks to methodical pedagogy, the transition went well.

One after the other, business units moved to digital. Then, the dot-com crash hit. In Norway and Sweden, Schibsted media properties where largely deployed online with large dedicated newsrooms, emerging consumer services built from scratch or from acquisitions. Management wondered what to do: Should we opt for a quick and massive downsizing to offset a brutal 50% drop in advertising revenue? Schibsted took the opposite tack: Yes business is terrible, but this is mostly the result of the financial crisis; the audience is still here, not only it won’t go away but, eventually, it will experience huge growth. This was the basis for two key decisions: Pursuing investments in digital journalism while finding ways to monetize it; and doing whatever it took in order to dominate the classifieds business.

In Sweden, a bright spot kept blinking on Schibsted’s radar. Blocket was growing like crazy. It was a bare-bone classifieds website, offering a mixture of free and premium ads in the simplest and most efficient way. At first, Schibsted Sweden tried to replicate Blocket’s model with the goal of killing it. After all, the group thought, it had all the media firepower needed to lift any brand… Wrong. After a while, it turned out Schibsted’s copycat  still lagged behind the original. In the kind of pragmatism allowed by deep pockets, Schibsted decided to acquire Blocket (for a hefty price). The clever classifieds website will become the matrix for the group’s foray in global classifieds.

In 2006, Schibsted had acquired and developed a cluster of consumer-oriented websites, from Yellow-Pages-like directories, to price-comparisons sites, or consumer-data services. Until then, the whole assemblage had been built on pure opportunism. It was time to put things in order. Hence, in 2007, the creation of Tillväxmedier, the first iteration of Schibsted Development. (The Norwegian version was launched in 2010 and the French one starts this year).

Last week in Paris, I met Richard Sandenskog, Tillväxmedier’s investment manager and Marc Brandsma, the newly appointed CEO of Schibsted Development France. Sandenskog is a former journalist who also spent eight years in London as a product manager for Yahoo!  Brandsma is a seasoned French entrepreneur and former venture capitalist. Despite local particularisms precluding a dumb replication of Nordic successes, two basics principles remain:

1. Invest in the number one in a niche market, or a potential number one in a larger one. “In the online business, there is no room for number two”, said Richard Sandenskog. “We want to leverage our dominance on a given market to build brands and drive traffic. The goal is to find the best way to expose the new brand in different channels and integrate it in various properties. The keyword is relevant traffic. We don’t care for page views for their sake, but for the value they bring. We see clicks as a currency.”

2. Picking the right product in the right sector. In Sweden, the Schibsted Developement portfolio evolves around the idea of empowering the consumer. To sum up: people are increasingly lost in a jungle of pricing, plans, offers, deals, for the services they need. It could be cell phones, energy bills, consumer loans… Hence a pattern for acquisitions: a bulk purchase web site for electricity (the Swedish market is largely deregulated with about 100 utilities companies); a helper to find the best cellular carrier plan based on individual usage; a personal finance site that lets consumers shop around for the best loan without degrading their credit rating; a personal factoring service where anyone can auction off invoices, etc.
Most are now #1 on their segment. “We give the power back to the consumer, sums up Richard Sandenskog. We are like Mother Teresa but we make money doing it….” Altogether, Tillväxmedier’s portfolio encompasses about 20 companies that made a billion of Swedish Kröner (€120m, $155m) in 2012 with a 12% EBITDA (several companies are in the growth phase.) All in five years…

France will be a different story. It’s five times bigger than Sweden, a market in which startups can be expensive. But what triggered Schibsted ASA’s decision to create a growth vehicle here is the spectacular performance of the classifieds site LeBoncoin.fr (see a previous Monday Note Schibsted’s extraordinary click machines): €98m in revenue and a cool 68% EBITDA last year. LeBoncoin draws 17m unique viewers (according to Nielsen). Based on this valuable asset, explains Marc Brandsma, the goal is to create the #1 online group in France (besides Facebook and Google). “The typical players we are looking for are B2C companies that already have a proven product — we won’t invest in PowerPoint presentations — driven by a management team aiming to be the leader in their market. Then we acquire it; we buy out all minority shareholders if necessary”. No kolkhoz here; decisions must be made quickly, without interference. “At that point, adds Brandsma we tell managers we’ll take care of growth by providing traffic, brand notoriety, marketing, all based on best practices and proven Schibsted expertise”. Two sectors Marc Brandsma says he won’t touch, though: business-to-business services and news media (ouch…)

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com