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Taking the Long View

What’s the most contrarian thing one can do in the technology business? Take the long view.

Few actually do this.

Moore’s law, the steady (if not as fast as we’d like) march to ubiquitous and persistent broadband, the decrease in the cost of storage — all make for a world that seems to move at hyper-speed.  Journalists and bloggers like to focus on news; it can get boring (for the journalist, for the reader) watching some five or ten year old company relentlessly march toward some distant goal. Yawn. It all conspires to create a world where we gravitate from one shiny shiny to the next, an entire herd of geeks afflicted with ADD. And it makes it very hard — indeed, unfashionable — to take the long term view and plow ahead.

I was thinking about all this over the weekend after reading the latest breathless piece about Foursquare or Gowalla or some other geo-location service (definitely the new hotness category).

And I had this thought: what companies, from the first decade of the public Internet era (say, 1994-2004) have really made a major impact? Because I’m hardly an expert on all Internet companies, I narrowed my focus further and asked: “What consumer Internet companies launched between 1994 and 2004 have had a lasting impact?”

It’s a pretty damned short list. Here’s mine:

  • Amazon
  • Google
  • Netflix
  • Craigslist
  • eBay
  • Yahoo!

These are the first generation Internet companies that continue to make a difference to millions of people online, nearly every day.

There are of course others from that generation still in existence — AOL, CNet, RealNetworks (Yahoo! and eBay are on the bubble and might join this second tier soon) — but their impact is diminished. And there are hundreds of companies — thousands, even — just gone altogether. Broadcast.com. The Globe. Pets.com. And on and on. It’s a good reminder that so many of the companies that get hyped today will be gone in 10 — or, 5 — years.

Looking at that small first list — Amazon, Google, Netflix, Craigslist in particular — one thing that’s clear is that (a) the founder(s) stayed on board, and (b) had incredibly long range vision. Think about Amazon, mocked so ruthlessly in 2000, 2001, and 2002, their stock plummeting, and being called “Amazon dot toast” and “Amazon dot Con.”

Jeff Bezos — who had a vision and an amazing amount of tenacity —  ignored the haters and doubters, had the last laugh.

There are similar stories for Google (think how “search” was ridiculed 1998-2000) and Netflix. And Craigslist was simply ignored, never made it to the “shiny shiny” stage, seen as a quirky hobby and not a real business. Craig Newmark and Jim Buckmaster kept building, launching in new cities, sticking to their knitting and their very basic and simple UI. And giving people a service they now can’t live without.

It’s interesting to think about the companies from the second generation of the Internet — founded, say, 2004 onwards — and to wonder which of them will be around in 2020. Facebook? Twitter? Gowalla?

I love that Ev Williams and Biz Stone seem determined to hang in for the long haul, not flip, and build something lasting. But Pandora, the streaming radio service (disclosure, I tend to use competitor last.fm) has the best and most inspiring story going. They’ve been at it for over 10 years now, went two years where they were out of money altogether, and  dodged a bullet only last year, when they got an initial, adverse music royalty ruling reversed.

As an entrepreneur, their story is awe-inspiring and humbling. You’d have to be a real contrarian to follow in their footsteps.

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