More blogs are raising venture capital, we’re hearing from people they’ve pitched. Newcomer Silicon Alley Insider is looking for a $3 – $5 million round, if reports are correct. And PaidContent is pitching for a second round in that same range (PaidContent raised a round of “less than $1 million” in 2006). We’re also hearing that PaidContent is trying to sell the company for $15 million or more, and just bail out with some spending money.
These rumored deals come as funding for bloggers is heating up in general. Just a month ago VentureBeat reported a $320,000 raise. In 2007 we saw Sugar Inc. ($10 million), GigaOm ($1 million), Xconomy, Blogher ($3.5 million) and The Huffington Post ($10 million) raise venture capital. That’s at least $25 million in 2007 invested in blogs and blog networks.
2006 was a mild year by comparison – SeekingAlpha raised an undisclosed round, as well as B5Media ($2 million), PaidContent ($1 million) Sugar Inc. ($5 million) and GigaOm ($325,000). That’s just $8.5 million or a little more, about 1/3 of the amount invested in 2007.
As far as we know, no significant investments were made in blogs in 2005. Weblogs, Inc raised around $300,000 in 2004, but before they got around to spending it they had sold themselves to AOL for an estimated $25 million. The investors, including Mark Cuban, received 15x on their initial investment.
But apart from that first 2004 investment in Weblogs, Inc., there haven’t been any sales or liquidity events to suggest these investments will be a success. And back then blogging was a cake walk. Most bloggers linked to eachother constantly in a state of brotherly or sisterly love. No one was making any money or getting much attention, so for the most part people got along (with notable exceptions like engadget/gizmodo, who play to win).
Those salad days are long gone. Writers suddenly want to be paid market wages, far above the $5 per post that they received two years ago. No, we’re talking a big salary, with benefits, and stock options. There went half your margins at least.
And writing good content is only half the battle. You have to figure out the complex, dynamic web of politics between bloggers and mainstream media before you post to know where to get support. And you’ll need support in the form of links from other prominent bloggers. An early push can take a post and make it a headline on TechMeme, which leads to page views and notice by sponsors. But since blogging is almost by definition a conversation between bloggers, fights tend to break out over emotional issues. Cliques develop. Can you count on them to support you down the road?
Personally, I’ve found that if a fight is necessary, fight clean and fight hard. Make it as bloody as possible and end it fast, with no loose ends dangling about. Leave no lingering emotional stone unturned. When everyone gets up and dusts themselves off, the issue should have been resolved one way or the other, and both sides should be happy to shake hands and tango another day, even if the handshaking is done privately. Those that aren’t capable of doing that tend to push themselves to the outskirts of the blogosphere, where their main job is to lob in attacks at random intervals, pursuing long forgotten insults.
So today, at best, I’d describe the blogosphere as a frontier town with no lawman (I mean, O’Reilly has a badge on, but no gun and no jail). You can do just about anything you want, but the politically savvy folks tend to arm themselves to the teeth and gang together to protect their property. Everyone else is in the middle of chaos, either fighting blindly for attention or politely asking (by linking early and linking often) if they can join the big Gang.
And now that the big guys in the Gang are being injected with capital, hiring tens of employees and expanding their businesses, they suddenly have a lot more to lose. Linking is never done just because. Rather, links are your political capital that must be expended appropriately. Don’t link at the right time and in two weeks when you’re pushing your own headline, you’ll wish you had. When you stop seeing other blogs as people you admire and want to discuss things with, and start to see them as your competitor, your brain shifts and you stop linking the way you had previously.
Luckily, the newbie bloggers are there to fill in the links when they’re needed. That’s why, if you are a mid-level blogger, you are likely courted by the bigger blogs looking to get your support. If you know what’s going on and are willing to play the game, you can see your blog rise very, very quickly. Choose the wrong blog, though, and you may find yourself alone and lonely in your forgotten blog.
As an aside, when I see a young but promising blogger, I’ll start linking to him or her constantly to build them up (others, like Winer, Scoble, Jarvis and Rubel did that for me). The goal is to help move them up to a position of influence as quickly as possible. The more non-crazy influencers in the game, the easier it is to ignore the noise generators and the better the overall conversation becomes. Over the last year, for example, Silicon Alley Insider, CenterNetworks , LouisGray and Mathew Ingram I’ve been pushing hard. These guys rarely agree with me, but when they talk I listen because they’ve put some thought into what they are saying and how they are saying it. Those guys haven’t hit the big politics yet, and tend to link out a lot to everyone. They are a very important part of the ecosystem – pushing their link votes towards stories they find interesting and helping those other bloggers get headlines and maintain their place in the Gang.
So what’s the point of this rant? Well, all this money flowing into the blogosphere is disrupting the complicated and emotional, but also stable way things are done. Bloggers with money and employees and health care programs and boards of directors and shareholders have to play politics with a whole new group of people, splitting them away from what they do best – Fighting the Blog War. Their behavior can become erratic as they have to decide to tone down their writing to get a certain type of sponsor on board, which in turn lets them make payroll. Investors want to see growth, so more and more blogs are launched, but perhaps without the right talent to grow it into a long term business.
In short, I believe the money is being, for the most part, wasted.
If a VC hands you a check, their intention is not to hang around for 20 years while you build a nice lifestyle business for yourself. What they want to see is an exit, preferably a 10x or higher exit, within 3-4 years. But something tells me that few of these networks are going to be able to grow quite as easily as they think and reach those liquidity events. The talent is, increasingly, locked up. Even when new talent is discovered or trained, every niche has serious heavyweights already there with page views and advertising dollars to back them up for a long fight.
At some point it’s going to become painfully obvious that the only way to get to a massive valuation is for the top talent to band together in a company where they each have an equity stake and therefore a reason to work all night on that next great story. They’ll each have their own space to stretch their legs and let their personality run around a little. Someone needs to pony up a big round of financing around an existing blog, or perhaps a new entity, and then start rolling them up into a big fat CNET crushing $200 million/year in revenue business.
It can happen. In fact it’s almost certainly going to happen. But if you bloggers go out there and raise $3 -$5 million on say a $10 million valuation, you’ve just priced yourself out of the rollup. That option will be closed to you, and you’ll be stuck out in the cold, taking life support payments from Federated Media or another ad network, and having a generally awful time running your business.
What I’d like to see, and even be a part of, is the blogger equivalent to the 1992 U.S. Mens Basketball Dream Team. That team could take CNET apart in a year, hire the best of the survivors there, and then move on to bigger prey.
Just the thought of being a part of something like that has held us back from raising any outside capital at all. I believe we have the beginning of a team that can play a role in this new Dream Team.
So think twice before taking that venture money, guys. You may be shutting more doors of opportunity than you realize.