I believe it should be possible to start a small business and to have a small number of profitable customers, and to earn a living. From there, it should be possible to work hard, and to grow your business into something substantial. Until recently, this was the American way, and it applied to technology as much as to any other business. But no more.
In today’s “free” world, in most online business categories, it is inherently impossible to start a small self-sustaining business and to grow it. This is because in the digital world, advertising, the only real revenue stream, cannot support a small digital business. If businesses were based on the idea that people paid for services then small companies could succeed at a small scale and grow. But it is very hard to charge when your competition is free.
The economic problem with advertising businesses is that advertising businesses do not work without really significant scale. In the past, a good product or service could address a niche and succeed without being a home run. Today, a home run is required because if you do not reach a massive scale, advertisers are uninterested. And even if advertisers could be attracted, CPMs are so low that the revenue would be inconsequential. Small Internet businesses don’t work.
So how did we get here? In a word, VC.
Venture capital has totally distorted the market. VCs are investing billions of dollars in companies with instructions to get big fast and to worry about advertising revenue later. As a result the competition is for users and not paying customers.
Unfortunately, to fix this, many more companies need to die.
With less “free” floating around, a more regular supply and demand dynamic can take hold, customers will have to pay for the things that are important to them and non-quantized growth dynamics can return. In the meantime, why should consumers pay for products and services that VCs and their pension fund investors are willing to give away for free?
The good news is at some point VCs will indeed realize how dumb all of this is and stop giving away everything of value on the Internet. This will all stop when the average VC can’t get any of his/her companies to scale because there is just too much VC sponsored free stuff out there. Then and only then will this crazy eyeballs business model redux finally be put to bed.
I cant wait.
Update 1: this piece was cross posted on Silicon Alley Insider.
Update 2: I have written a follow-up piece to this here.