What single issue will separate the winners from the losers in the next technological era?
That was the message of this year's seventh annual Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford Conference, which took place this week.
SVCO has become, perhaps, the premiere event for young entrepreneurs in Europe, and having attended all seven, I have found it interesting to watch the rise of tech entrepreneurship in this region.
The program originally began with me eight years ago, when I was invited to the Said Business School to give a speech to an audience of students; and even now, each year I participate by helping to moderate at least one of the panels, and teach a couple of master classes.
These days, the audience is usually standing room only, the halls filled not only with students, but probably a couple hundred business executives, reporters, academics and bloggers. Heavily represented is the Oxford Entrepreneurs Society, which hardly existed when I started, and which now boasts 3,000 members.
Some of those members, as well as graduated Oxford MBAs, were sitting on the dais with me — and it was gratifying to see that some of the students in the audience five years ago, were now successful executives in their own startup companies.
Eight years ago, I began a tradition of asking the audience at the main round table how many considered themselves to be entrepreneurs. Back then, no more than 20 percent raised their hands. This year, that number was up to about 80 percent, including not just commercial, but social entrepreneurs, committed to bringing those same business-building skills to nonprofit organizations. With numbers like that, it can indeed be said that Oxford University, that 8-century-old institution, is now, itself, the heartland of entrepreneurial education in Europe.
Just for fun this time, I added a new question to my poll: How many members of the audience were, at that moment, instant messaging, twittering or blogging about the event? The result was an astounding 15 percent. Add the camera crews filming streaming video for Web sites, and reporters recording the event for podcasts, and what had begun as a formal speech to a passive audience at the beginning of this decade, is now becoming a global interactive event.
The second change that has taken place at SVCO is in the message being delivered by the distinguished guests from the Valley. At the beginning of the decade, guests like Jeff Skoll of eBay and Elon Musk of PayPal, talked about taking the entrepreneurial skills they'd learned in the high-tech industry, and applying them to other markets. These days, of course, Skoll runs one of the most celebrated and honored production companies in Hollywood, while Musk has been busy building rocket ships and the Tesla electric car.
By 2002-2003, in the middle of the dot-com bust, it was difficult to find good news to bring to the Said students, and almost impossible to convince many of them that high-tech would survive even this crash, and that entrepreneurial opportunities would soon again be on the rise.
The one message we did hear from panelists during that period, notably Evan Williams, then of Blogger.com, was that a new type of Web phenomenon — social networking — was beginning to catch fire, and that clever students would be wise to look at business opportunities in that field.
Within a couple years after that, the event saw the arrival of the leaders of those new social networking companies, including the founders of Facebook, Photobucket, Linked/In and Craigslist, among others (the first two, selling for huge sums just weeks after their founders appeared on the panel). Williams returned as the head of Twitter, which, at the time he described it to the audience, had just a few hundred members — and now numbers in the millions.
But the guy who got the most attention was Chris Sacca, the director of new business at Google, and arguably — because he was the person every hot new company approached to be bought by Google — the single most important figure in American business over the last half decade.
Raymond Nasr, Google's then-vice president of executive communications, had been at the first SVCO, and four more, thereafter — at the beginning, talking about this hot little company with the funny name, and ending up, five years later, representing the most powerful Web company on the planet, and mobbed by the students wanting a brush with that kind of corporate superstardom.
But Sacca took the Google presence to a whole new level, because he was actually the guy who controlled Google's purse strings — which meant that he was the most important arbiter of who in the new generation of tech entrepreneurs would be tapped as superstars, made tycoons, and their company a household name. Needless to say, the audience, especially the MBA students, hung on his every word.
Sacca was at SVCO again this year, as was Reid Hoffman of Linked/In, and nearly 20 more Valley VIPs, including a handful of returning Oxford MBAs-made-good, most of whom had moved to Silicon Valley. And the message they brought this year was a new one, and one I think will be vitally important to anyone who wants to start, manage, or just invest in, a high-tech company in the next few years.
The message is this: If the key to success on the Web until now has largely been infrastructure — that is, how many servers you can put online, how robust your Web site is, how attractive and easy your Web page is to use — success in the future will go to those who best enlist their users into the actual creation of the business itself. And that means that the winners of the next phase of the Web will be those who can accept the unprecedented levels of trust in their customers that will be required to succeed.
We saw the first phase of this with the great community sites like MySpace and Facebook, where, handed a blank slate, users, themselves, largely built the site with their own contributions — an experience so attractive that MySpace, for example, now has nearly 200 million users, more than the population of most countries.
Now, according to the SVCO panelists, we are moving into the next phase. In this new era, it won't be enough to simply leave blanks on your site for users to fill, but rather, to provide them with the tools they need to actually participate in the construction of the site, and to open platforms upon which they can develop their own proprietary applications, even those that don't directly benefit (and may even compete with) the parent company itself.
In practice, this means whole new companies being founded to market products and services off Facebook or YouTube, Linked/In or even eBay (Auctomatic, a company making tools for eBay powersellers, was represented on the panel this year), or media companies allowing their readers and viewers to provide content to, and to self-monitor entire regions of their Web sites, even developing new applications for them.
Here's a link to the complete list of hot new companies recommended by the panelists: http://www.newscientist.com/blog/technology/2007/11/how-to-spot-bext-big-thing.html.
Trusting your users, and empowering them with the tools to tinker with your business, is something that sounds easy in theory, but will probably prove impossible for many companies to accept.
And among these losers will be a number of firms, especially media companies, that have done quite well up to now, because they've only had to invest capital to improve the quality of their Web presence. Surrendering the keys to the business is a whole different matter — and we can expect to see some current giants fall in the years to come, when they just can't give up control.
In the meantime, I can hardly wait to see what new lessons emerge from Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford 2008.
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.