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The last couple of years have seen an explosion of innovation on the web that has broadly been labeled Web 2.0. There has been a lot of debate about what exactly constitutes web 2.0 but what hasn’t received as much attention has been what changes have enabled these Web 2.0 companies to arise – what is different now from the mid 90s and Web 1.0. I think the change can be summarized in one (somewhat clumsy) word: Variablization.

Variablized Development Costs

In the 90s we used software development models, primarily waterfall models, where a usable product wasn’t available until close to the end of the development period. Most code was written from scratch, with little reuse or public domain code, and large teams were necessary.

With the popularization of agile programming methodologies, widespread use of open source software, greater ability to use offshore development resources on a consulting basis, and a culture of “open beta”, the costs of developing a website or web service have become both lower and more variable. Ideas that look promising but fail to capture user interest in beta can be identified much earlier and at much lower cost, and resources can be shifted to more promising avenues.

Variablized Content Costs

In the 90s almost all content was created by professional editors and writers, employed by companies. To launch, they had to create a critical mass of content, which cost a certain amount.

Recently, with lower expectations out of beta products, the widespread adoption of user generated content and emerging best practices in how to use user generated content, the costs of content creation have dropped dramatically and become variable.

Variablized Marketing Costs

In the 90s, there were only two ways to get a large number of users. The first was offline marketing – the famous Pets.com superbowl ad approach. Expensive, and with a high minimum level of spend required to break through the clutter. We all know how that worked out.

Overture and Google have changed that landscape. Their CPC model means that you can spend as much as you choose to gain new users, and that your marketing spend can be completely variable.

Variablized Distribution Costs

The second way to get a large number of users in the 90s was to get a distribution deal with one of the big portals – AOL, Yahoo or MSN. In those days, this was the only way to reach a large number of internet users effectively, and you typically had to sign up for a multi year, multi million dollar deal to do it.

As social network platforms open up, and as the basic principles of viral marketing become better known, distribution has become variable, if not free.

Variablized Monetization

The vast majority of Web 2.0 companies rely on advertising as their business model. I think this is because advertising is the one business model that has become variable (relative to the 90s). Back then, to sell online advertising, you both needed to have substantial scale, and you needed to have your own sales force.

Today, thanks to ad networks and CPC contextual targeting (not just Google’s adsense, but also Quigo, Yahoo’s Publisher Network and others), even the smallest of websites can start earning advertising revenue.

There have not been equivalent innovations for subscription and ecommerce business models, and as a result, we’ve seen far fewer web 2.0 companies that use those models.

Conclusion

These changes in cost structure are a useful lens through which to view the current startup environment. It’s been said before that it is cheaper to build a company than ever before. While that is partially true, it is not the whole story. Digg has raised over $10m, Youtube over $12m, Photobucket and Rockyou (a Lightspeed company) over $15m, and Facebook has raised over $275m. (With the exception of Facebook) while these are lower than the amounts raised by companies in the 90s, they are still large numbers. Variablization of costs only makes costs go away when usage is low. In other words, while it still takes money to succeed, it is cheaper to fail than ever before.

Luckily for VCs like me, that means that successful companies will still need to raise money!

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  • http://www.sexywidget.com lawrence

    Good stuff Jeremy. Your variablization model explains much – but not all – of why it’s easier to be a web publisher in 2007 than it was in 1999.

    The one enormous factor that I think is missing from the variablization model is the rise of a single, dominant search engine with the ability to index massive amounts of content daily, and the ability to reward that content with targeted, organic search traffic.

    While SEO existed in 1999, there wasn’t enough search referral traffic back then to support most online businesses.

    I’ve been trying to figure out how SEO might fit into variablized distribution, but I can’t seem to cram it in there.

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