I don’t know the exact timing, but somewhere between 2000 and 2007, much of the Silicon Valley lost interest in the idea that a business could build software and that people would buy it. Sure, plenty of startups still went about doing the enterprise software thing - companies I worked for like Jive and Spoke Software.
But the excitement around those kinds of companies pretty much dried up after the bust and the valley re-emerged from it’s hole a few years later. Valley 2.0 didn’t seem interested in selling software. Instead, it was all about social media, advertisements, group buying, gaming (aka ScamVille), etc.
The Independent Software Vendor (ISV) has been forced to stay exactly that: independent. Most investors you talked would tell you plainly that people don’t buy software (or music, no one told Apple). They’d say that your idea isn’t fundable - good luck to you.
I know: both my startups (in the software testing space) were extremely hard to get funding for, which ultimately turned out to be a blessing after I sold BrowserMob to Neustar and retained 100% of the equity. To be fair: My second time around (in 2009) I did begin to notice a difference in attitude and I met some great investors that encouraged me to sell pickaxes over mining for gold.
But something funny happened a few years ago. Maybe it was the launch of the App Store. Maybe the valley just matured a bit. Maybe it just took a few good consumer/prosumer/enterprise startups to break past the Facebook/MySpace/GroupOn hoopla. Whatever it was, the attitude started shifting and making software that people buy became (somewhat) cool again.
And good thing too. The big news this week is DropBox’s whopping $250M round, $4B valuation, and their spurning of Steve Jobs. I’m one of their 50M users and I was just thinking the other day after having uploaded another 500MB of scanned files: “Wow, I bet DropBox knows almost exactly when I’m going to become a paying customer”. And sure enough, they know it:
It’s only going to get better. That 96% of nonpaying customers is throwing their stuff into Dropbox at such a pace that thousands of people each day blow through the free 2 gigabytes of storage, and upgrade to 50 gigs for $10 a month or 100 gigs for $20. Even if Houston doesn’t sign up a single customer in 2012, his sales will double
Quick side note: DropBox, arguably the most successful example of a company that makes money the old fashioned way, applied for YCombinator in April 2007 (a good read, btw). I don’t know Paul Graham, but I can’t imagine many people funding the concept any earlier than that. For reference, by April 2006 (a year earlier) Facebook was all the rage and had already raised over $40M, and before that News Corp had paid nearly $600M for MySpace.
And then there’s Evernote, a service/tool that I’m already happily paying $45/year. I use it, along with my wonderful Fujitsu ScanSnap scanner, to turn my household 100% digital. As TechCrunch put it when reporting on their recent $50M, they want to be the antithesis of Zynga.
Setting aside all the various iPhone and iPad apps I’ve paid for (that’s another post), I’m also happily paying (or have paid) for Pandora, Skype, Flow (before that Things), Reeder, 1Password, SmugMug, and more. So despite open source, despite the Facebookification of the valley, despite all the naysayers - all trends seem to be pointing to a renaissance of the ISV and the simple concept that PEOPLE WILL PAY FOR A QUALITY SERVICE (*gasp*).
Of course, it’s not like the good old days - it’s better! No more CDs or floppy disks. Even the desktop tools, like DropBox, 1Password, Flow, and Reeder, all have nice auto-update utilities so they are as easy to use as a website. But more importantly, both consumer and investor attitude seems to have shifted back towards the idea that it makes sense to pay for a quality service.
And that’s what excites me most about doing another startup.
I know I’ll always be in the business of selling software for greenbacks. My brain simply isn’t wired to be successful at starting a social network, a game company, or a group buying site. While I don’t expect to do another startup in the enterprise/IT space, I am super excited about building enterprise or prosumer applications and services in the coming years.
Knowing that there are 50M people supporting DropBox or 11M+ people supporting Evernote gives me the confidence that I too can build something of value and create a real, long-standing, successful company out of it. I may never know why things shifted back this way, but I’m certainly glad it has.