Trinity's Gus Tai on social media investing

There's opportunity to provide services to help monetize the social media ecosystem

Investor interview by Meliza Solan Surdi
March 4, 2009
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In this segment, Bambi Francisco interviews Gus Tai, general partner and venture capitalist of Trinity Ventures. Tai focuses on consumer services and consumer enabling technologies, and maintains an interest in enterprise software.

(Here is the edited version)

BF: Well, Gus you've been very active in the social media space since 2005 when you invested in Wetpaint. Then in 2006, you invested in Photobucket. There's still a lot of investments being made in social media and the type of company that fits in the social media bucket has changed. So tell us how social media has changed from 2005 to 2009?

GT: My sense is, and our take at Trinity is, social media continues to have the same fundamental aspects to it although it has become increasingly sophisticated. One of the ways we approach thinking about social media is that Web 2.0 types of technology have enabled the Web to become much more interactive. So rather than publish and subscribe to the masses, it can be interactive to one-to-one or a one-to-a-few types of interactions. Consumers on the Internet fundamentally engage in two ways. One way is either around content which Wikipedia does or Wetpaint does, where contributors and editors and readers all converge in a single place to approve or adjust and add their point of view. The other bucket of interaction relates to just messaging with people whom you know and that would be more of what Facebook does. We view Facebook in a lot of ways as fantastic company obviously, as well as a company that is a directory service and a presence server for all the people who are on the Internet. But in the early days, back in 2005, companies would approach social media and think of ways that people can communicate with each other or alternatively what forms of content we could talk about. So we funded Wetpaint on that notion of providing a platform so that communities could get together and discuss content whether they want to talk about cats or whether they want to talk about autos and such. Then down the road in 2006, we funded Photobucket more on the standpoint that there are more of social groups of people who want to communicate and message with each other but the fabric of how they communicate was what they were up to. And Photobucket has been the largest repository photos and videos for users. And by the time Fox purchased them, that company was signing up 90,000 registered users every single day.

BF: Now the companies you funded have been around for several years, and there are emerging companies that are iterating this idea of social media and interaction, communication, sharing news and opinions. In the space of Wetpaint, you're seeing a number of companies emerging that are trying to address the same customer, the big traditional media companies who want to create a fan base around their shows but they're doing it a different way. Watercooler, Buddy Media and appssavvy come to mind. These startups are creating fan bases through applications and going into the social networks where there are half a billion people there already. So do you see them as a threat to your social media investment Wetpaint, given that they've iterated on the idea of social media and being in the environment where people are?

GT: I don't feel they're a threat. I think what's wonderful about consumerism, particularly in the media consumption in the U.S. is that as audiences become more familiar with any given type of media, they seek their own uniqueness in micro-segmentation. So you could have "Survivor" as the first reality television show that's been published. Then coming from that is "American Idol" and "Big Brother" where each particular show appeals to a certain need of the audience. And likewise I think that you had highlighted two of the important trends where more recent of social media companies in the broad category of Wetpaint and that is you can differentiate by having richer types of applications. So if you wanted to follow a celebrity type of angle, you might want to have two face-offs of two different celebrities and vote for who you like better. The other angle is to ride into the whole social networking fabric of what are plug-ins that we could have in Facebook or in MySpace and ride that form of distribution. Those are all legitimate. I think what's most important is that any given publisher figures out what speaks authentically to the readers and to the contributors and consumers would find that and there will be many successes.

BF: I see a lot of social media companies emerging. There is an entire ecosystem of these social applications and social marketers. Are there too many in one particular area? Where do you see saturation? Where do you see investment opportunities?

GT: I think the major change over the last several quarters has been the increased focused on monetization. In 2006 and 2007, a number of social media companies, along with the companies that you were referring to that help support that ecosystem, were focusing on reach because larger traditional publishers were looking to make acquisitions. So they could acquire a company with a broad audience but not necessarily with a form of monetization. Given that the large traditional publishers have made their bets, they're not going to be buying as many companies. But startups or emerging companies need to figure out to develop stand alone businesses. And so there, they're looking to different service providers and companies that you mentioned in the ecosystem to help monetize. I think there is a vibrant opportunity to provide those types of monetization services. So there are companies that help provide advertising or service offers that's relevant in the context of the social media platform. There are other groups of companies that help with syndication or hyper-syndication and distribution. So I wouldn't say that the space is overcrowded. We'll just say that it's an emerging category and we'll see how things shake out.

BF: What makes you attracted to an idea or entrepreneur? You typically like to invest in a few people in the formative stages, so what makes you attracted to that person or idea?

GT: What attracts me most is someone who has a great deal of conviction and thought of an emerging area with great insight and thought that opportunity might be transformative. Because when you're talking about finding an entrepreneur in a formation basis, it's going to be eighteen months before they get traction. So they have to have a unique lens that is thoughtful that if it something happens, it could make sense. In the case of Wetpaint's Ben Elowitz, he was a serial entrepreneur who was thinking very hard about how will people aggregate around content. And he had some hypothesis that weren't yet proven to be true but he said let's executive and see what could happen. Fortunately he has been executing very well and has been right about those assumptions. But having that unique lense was important because otherwise he would figure out how he would differentiate.

BF: It's important to experience and then see it come through.

GT: Right.

BF: Thank you very much, Gus. 

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