Big Ideas Need Work, Amazon Isn’t Too Late in Mobile Apps, and More from VC Tom Huseby
Breakthrough ideas and management “dream teams” by themselves are overblown. What really counts is hard work and the ability to adapt. That’s one of my main takeaways after chatting with Seattle-area venture capitalist and mobile guru Tom Huseby. He also shed new light on the dynamics between Apple, Google, and Amazon in the mobile sector—and explained why he has had to raise his game as the playing field in mobile has become more level.
Huseby, a prominent VC with SeaPoint Ventures, Oak Investment Partners, Covera Ventures, and Voyager Capital, spoke with me recently on a wide range of topics—sort of a state of the union for the Seattle-area mobile industry. First, I wanted to get his take on the importance of thinking big and working on breakthrough ideas—ones that could truly change the world—as that was the theme of our Xconomy Forum last week.
“Most of the big ideas are just negative energy,” Huseby said—until they get worked on. That’s because most entrepreneurs tend to sit on big ideas; either they don’t tell people about them for fear of revealing too much to competitors, or they’re too busy with other things. “A good idea that isn’t acted on is just negative energy—a sinkhole—it sits there and draws your attention,” he said. He stressed that the key is what people do with their ideas. “You can make a bad idea happen if you work on it. Good ideas won’t work if you don’t work on them. At big companies, they usually don’t work,” he said. “Good ideas have to morph.”
In particular, to make a breakthrough in the mobile sector, he said, “you have to have an almost unbelievable value proposition.” As for Web companies, Huseby said giants like Google and Amazon are examples of “massive vision,” followed up with smart execution and thorough analyses of what it would take to carve out large slices of their respective markets in search and retail.
Given all that Apple, and now Google, have done to change the landscape of mobile software with their applications platforms, I asked whether Amazon is getting into the game too late. Huseby doesn’t think so.
“You can’t be too late to an app store,” he said. “You could be too late to a music store. [iTunes] gave Apple a huge advantage on the app business.” But right now, mobile applications are still restricted to specific devices, which means there is opportunity for more big players. Huseby added that he thinks the Amazon Kindle e-book reader will eventually carry voice signals using a microphone attachment; even though he said Amazon’s revenue from that would be zero, I took this to mean the move could make the firm more competitive in the mobile sector.
Meanwhile, Huseby thinks Google’s Nexus One phone was a bit of a surprise, because Google could make so much money from its Android operating system and running its services on other companies’ phones—why bother having its own phone? He thinks the answer probably has to do with the growing split, and competition, between Apple and Google.
He also said there’s a huge difference in the user-friendliness of the iPhone versus Google’s Nexus One, in terms of consumers being able to use the devices out of the box. “There’s a lot of learning that company [Google] has to do to become a consumer products company,” he said. But on the software platform side, he said, “Android works a lot better than I thought it would.”
Huseby also talked about how the whole mobile ecosystem has changed such that there are a lot more players from the software side. “There are fewer and fewer constraints around mobile that separate me from everyone else,” Huseby said. “Now phones are working very well, and are very similar to PCs in every way—suddenly the playing field has become more level…The power of the phone is so high, a lot of people are roaring into the space that don’t need to know about mobile. It’s no longer the private reserve of people who know how the concept of a handoff works.” (That’s cellular-network-speak for switching base stations when your mobile phone moves around.)
Lastly, the big opportunities Huseby currently sees in mobile phones include voice command (speech recognition on phones) and streaming video—the latter of which he originally didn’t think would be that big.
And the future of mobile revenues, he said, lies in advertising. That’s where some of his more prominent portfolio companies are operating— Zumobi, SinglePoint, and Ground Truth, all based in the Seattle area. (Ground Truth announced new members of its advisory board, including Usama Fayyad and Clark Kokich, last week.)
“I got really interested in how’s this network going to get paid for. Are you going to replace the whole phone? There’s some money coming in, but not a lot,” he said. “Will you replace the cable bill? No, but home broadband maybe. Will you reach into customers’ pockets? Probably not. I bet on mobile advertising a long time ago. I’m working that space.”
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