What Wireless Carriers Want from Startups, and Other Insights from VC Tom Huseby at Mobile Northwest

Tom Huseby says he’s finally able to go home and not worry about seeing his family’s savings stuffed under his mattress. “The panic is over,” he says. “All of a sudden, things are getting a lot better. It doesn’t feel much better now, but it is.”

Huseby, a noted Seattle-based venture capitalist with SeaPoint Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, Hunt Ventures, and Voyager Capital (and the Godfather of what we’ve been calling the “Qpass mafia”), was giving his 30,000-foot view of the economic landscape and VC market at today’s Mobile Northwest 2009 conference in Seattle. He also drilled down into some of the most pressing challenges in the mobile space, as well as what the startup opportunities are. Just a few highlights here:

“Unemployment is going to slow growth across any consumer business. If you’re in mobile, I hate to tell you, but you’re in the consumer business. I do think there will be liquidity in mobile startups,” Huseby says. “Most startups are going to have to earn it the old-fashioned way, they’ll have to grow over a long time. You’re going to have to survive during a roller coaster ride. Every single company will have to go rushing to the bottom, and then do the slow, clanking ride to the top.”

In terms of startup opportunities, it helps to think in terms of what wireless carriers need. Huseby calls himself “fairly carrier-centric.” As he puts it, they are big customers that are predictable (once you understand them) and they generate huge amounts of cash. He laid out the top three challenges for carriers today—absolutely critical to understand if you’re an entrepreneur trying to get their attention with a new product.

—Bandwidth. There’s “tremendous pressure on carriers” to provide more bandwidth to support people’s exploding need for data connectivity wherever they go, Huseby says.

—Costs of bandwidth. “Oh my God, how are you going to pay for it?” he asks. With such a competitive market, Huseby thinks costs for consumers will actually go down. “I think they’re not going to get the money from us, they’re going to have to get it from advertising. Advertising revenue will absolutely help pay for the bandwidth.” (The problem is that mobile advertising revenue is still relatively small and doesn’t usually go to carriers.)

—Holding onto consumers. “If they’re going to pay for it with advertising, they need to get a much firmer grip on their customers,” Huseby says. He sees this as a crucial issue for the coming decade. “The next viral social network has to work hard to make [ad revenues] accrue to them. Carriers have to be very conscious of the demographics of their customers. They have to get their customers anchored in.”

After his talk, I had a chance to ask Huseby about some other areas of interest, like mobile search. He says he’s generally staying out of that space, but is looking at location-based services from the perspective of retail stores and local advertising.

We’ll have more from the conference soon, so watch this space.

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