The New Software Industry: Investment Opportunities Panel

Jason Maynard of Credit Suisse moderated a panel on investment opportunities in the new software industry, which included Bill Burnham of Inductive Capital, Scott Russell (who was with two different venture capital firms but doesn’t appear to be with one at this time, although his title is listed as “venture capitalist”), and Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners.

This was more of an open Q&A between the moderator and the panel with no presentation by each of them, so again, difficult to blog about since the conversation wandered around and there were no visual aids.

Winblad made a comment early on about how content management and predictive analytics are all part of the collaboration infrastructure; I think that her point is that there’s growth potential in both of those areas as Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 applications mature.

There was a lengthy discussion about open source, how it generates revenue and whether it’s worth investing in; Burnham and Russell are against investing in open source, although Winblad is quite bullish on it but believes that you can’t just lump all open source opportunities together. Like any other market sector, there’s going to be winners and losers here. They all seem to agree, however, that many startups are benefiting from open source components even though they are not offering an open source solution themselves, and that there are great advantages to be had by bootstrapping startup development using open source. So although they might not invest in open source, they’d certainly invest in a startup that used open source to accelerate their development process and reduce development costs.

Russell feels that there are a number of great opportunities in companies where the value of the company is based on content or knowledge rather than the value of their software.

SaaS startups create a whole new wrinkle in venture: the working capital management is much trickier due to the delay in revenue recognition since payments tend to trickle in rather than be paid up front, even though the SaaS company needs to invest in infrastructure. Of course, I’m seeing some SaaS companies that are using hosted infrastructure rather than buying their own; Winblad discussed these sort of rented environments, and other ways to reduce startup costs such as using virtualization to create different testing environments. There are still a lot of the same old problems however, such as sales models. She advises keeping low to the ground, getting something out to a customer in less than a year, getting a partner to help bring the product to market in less than two years. As she put it, frugality counts; the days of spending megabucks on unnecessary expenses went away in 2000 when the first bubble burst, and VCs are understandably nervous about investing in startups that exhibit that same sort of profligate spending.

Maynard challenged them each to name one public company to invest in for the next five years, and why:

  • Russell: China and other emerging markets require banking and other financial data, which companies like Reuters and Bloomberg (more favoured) will be able to serve. He later made comments about how there are plenty of opportunities in niche markets for companies that own and provide data/information rather than software.
  • Burnham: mapping/GPS software like Tele Atlas, that have both valuable data and good software. He would not invest in the existing middleware market, and specifically suggested shorting TIBCO and BEA (unless they are bought by HP) — the two companies whose user conferences that I’m attending this week and next.
  • Winblad: although she focusses on private rather than public investments, she makes Amazon is a good bet since they are expanding their range of services to serve bigger markets, and have a huge amount of data about their customers that allows them to . She thinks that Bezos has a good vision of where to take the company. She recommends shorting companies like CA, because they’re in the old data, infrastructure and services business.

Audience questions following that discussion focussed a lot on asking the VCs opinions on various public companies, such as Yahoo. Burnham feels that Yahoo is now in the entertainment industry, not the software industry, so is not a real competitor to Google. He feels that Google versus Microsoft is the most interesting battle to come. Russell thinks that Yahoo is a keeper, nonetheless.

Questions about investments in mobile produced a pretty fuzzy answer: at some point, someone will get the interface right, and it will be a huge success; it’s very hard for startups to get involved since it involves them doing long negotiations with the big providers.

Burnham had some interesting comments about investing in the consumer versus the business space, and how the metrics are completely different because marketing, distribution and other factors differ so much. Winblad added that it’s very difficult to build a consumer destination site now, like MySpace or YouTube. Not only are they getting into a crowded market, but many of the startups in this area have no idea how to answer basic questions about the details of an advertising revenue model, for example.

Burnham had a great comment about what type of Web 2.0 companies not to invest in: triple-A’s, that is, AdSense, AJAX and arrogance.

Winblad feels that there’s still a lot of the virtualization story to unfold, since it is seriously changing the value chain in data centres. Although VMware has become the big success story in this market, there are a number of other niches that have plenty of room for new players. She also thinks that companies providing specialized analytics — her example was basically about improving financial services sales by analyzing what worked in the past — can provide a great deal of revenue enhancement for their customers. As a final point on that theme, Maynard suggested checking out Swivel, which provides some cool data mashups.

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