Silicon Insider: The Google Factor

If online communities are the next big thing in high-tech, how do you make money off them?

There are two answers -- one hard, the other easy:

      Spend several years building a vast user base for your nonprofit community site. Then very, very carefully begin offering for-profit ancillary services to that population; or,
      Just start the community, prove the concept, then sell the whole thing to Google.

That was the ambivalent message of this year's "Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford," an event that has now become something of an institution at the Said Business School at Oxford University and among tech companies in the Thames Valley. SVCO, now officially in its fourth year, began five years ago when my assistant at Forbes ASAP, Ann McAdam, contacted the B-school, then just moving into its new building, and secretly arranged, for my birthday, for me to speak at the school.

As it turned out, I was the second speaker at Said's shiny new lecture hall -- the first being the guy it was named after: Nelson Mandela. The ultimate hard act to follow. Despite that, I apparently said enough interesting things about Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship that Dean Anthony Hopwood asked if I would come back the next year "and bring some friends" from Silicon Valley.

The gathering has grown from there, becoming a major event on the B-school's annual calendar. And this year's SVCO was the biggest yet, filling not only the 450-person theater, but spilling out into an extra hall where only the audio was piped in, recorded for U.S. radio by the Commonwealth Club, and covered by the British press.

One reason for the big turnout was that this year's panel was probably the best yet. For the first time, the event was given a theme -- "Networks in the 21st Century" -- and the lineup was first rate: including Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and his CEO Jim Buckmaster; Chris Sacca, the new business development guy at Google; Evan Williams, co-founder of Pyra Labs (creator of and Odeo (podcasting); Robert Young, founder of Linux pioneer Red Hat; Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn; corporate and securities lawyer Maria Sendra of Baker & McKenzie; and legendary venture capitalist Allen Morgan of the Mayfield Fund.

Google Flexes Its Muscle

What made the panel especially compelling was not just what was said, but what the individuals on the stage represented: The new twin poles of the cutting edge of high tech.

On one end is Google. Never in all my years covering Silicon Valley have I seen a company grow from small and fun to big and scary, from the celebrated to the feared, and from the casually dismissed to the obsessively tracked, in such a short period of time. All of this was on display at SVCO. In years past, Google was represented at the event by executive communications director Raymond Nasr, an old friend. Raymond would show up, make the audience laugh, and hand out Google tchotchkies to thrilled students.

But that was the old pre-IPO, pre-world dominance Google. Like many of his early-Google peers, Raymond has retired in great comfort as a still-young man -- and while Chris Sacca was just as relaxed and amusing, there was no mistaking who was the most powerful man in the hall. As he admitted, every day, seven days a week, he is sent more than 50 business plans and proposals -- every one of them wanting just a little piece of the billions of dollars of investment money he has at his disposal.

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