Marauders, Napkin Entrepreneurs and IPOs: The Top 5 Blogs of 2011

As 2011 comes to a close, I want to celebrate the blogs that caught my attention, made me think, and taught me a lesson or two. So without further adieu, I present my favorite 5 blogs of 2011.

5. A behemoth competitor entered your space? Here is a textbook response.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery, by Matt Brezina, CEO of Sincerely

When Apple launched Cards, an app for sending physical cards, my heart sank. My close friend of more than 10 years had just launched Sincerely and its flagship product Postagram. Apple entered the exact market my friend Matt was creating.

Before turning in for the night, I checked Twitter one more time and saw that Matt posted this blog. I read it. By the end of the post, I realized Sincerely wasn’t scared of the competition; on the contrary, it was energized by it.

So, if you’re running a company and a bigger competitor enters your space, use the opportunity to change the conversation. This post does three things particularly well.

  1. Historical context – Apple made a similar move with iPhoto and has had little success. Will this time be different?
  2. Define the competitor and differentiate – The blog makes it clear that Sincerely is not in the photo game but the gifting game. Thus, the blog differentiates Sincerely from Apple. And it does it in a meaningful way. To me, the gifting business sounds like a more exciting opportunity than the card business.
  3. Highlight specialization and focus – Physical cards are a distraction to Apple. If every person that bought an iPhone in 2011 sent 1 card per month, it would only equate to 2.5% of Apples total revenue. Sincerely, on the other, is laser-focused on the market. And I’ll bet on focus over distraction any day.

4. Secrets aren’t necessary
What Powers Instagram: Hundreds of Instances, Dozens of Technologies by Instagram
Companies are secretive. Coca-cola locks its recipe in a safe. Apple goes to extraordinary lengths to veil new products. It refreshing, therefore, when a company comes out and says, “Hey, this is how we do things.” And no company did this better than Instagram, the photo sharing mobile app that launched this year and already has more than 12 million users.

In this blog post, Instragram shares its IT strategy. Anyone interested in launching a competitive product could – and should – follow each and every recommendation. And that is the point: when you have a branded product that consumers trust – in Warren Buffett’s terms a “moat” – it does not matter if your competitors or customers know how the product gets delivered. Having the exact recipe or a head-start on a new product does not make it any more likely that Coke or Apple will be disrupted.  The same goes for Instagram. Understanding how Instagram delivers beautiful photos to your mobile devices does not mean a competitor can replace them through replication. A new competitor needs to identify what Instagram is missing and then fill that customer need.

3. IPOs and private markets
IT’S OFFICIAL: The IPO Market Is Crippled — And It’s Hurting Our Country by Alan Patricof

A major story throughout 2011 was Facebook’s valuation on the private markets. As of September, the company was valued at $82 billion on SharePost. But there was a bigger story than just the billions Facebook was worth. If a global brand with profits and exponential growth had not already gone public, what did that say about the IPO market overall?

In a blog on Business Insider, Greycroft’s Alan Patricof poured onto the page the knowledge he has gained from over 30 years of early stage investing. He concluded that companies, particularly smaller ones, no longer have the opportunity to go public and as a result America is losing its technological advantage. The decline in the IPO market is the result of four factors:

  1. Small firms were underwritten by small banks. Small banks no longer exist thanks to two decades of consolidation.
  2. Only big banks remain. Big banks can only invest big amounts. They cannot be bothered with hundreds of small holdings. Thus, it’s a blockbuster IPO or nothing.
  3. Smaller bid-ask spreads make it difficult to trade in small companies that do not have large trading volumes
  4. It is too expensive and complex for small companies to manage the public market regulations.

As a result, venture capitalists are less likely to invest in capital intensive businesses that require the level of funding only found on the public market. This shifts early stage investments to highly scalable services like Facebook and Twitter and away from companies that make technological leaps like Intel. And when that happens we all lose.

2. Added to my lexicon in 2011: “Napkin Entrepreneur”
Napkin Entrepreneurs by Steve Blank

I judge a blog based on how often I reference it in my daily life. This year, I added a new phrase to my lexicon: Napkin Entrepreneur.

Steve Blank, a start-up veteran and thought leader, wrote a perfect summary of today’s start-up environment. Basically, the amount of capital required to start a business has fallen dramatically while the number customers you can reach has risen dramatically. As a result, dreamers no longer need to sketch out a plan on a cocktail napkin. Rather, they can hack the product together and deliver it to millions of users at zero cost. If the feedback is positive, keep going. If it is negative, move onto the next idea. The Napkin has been replaced with the beta product.

1. Don’t worry about Marauders
Speech by Elizabeth Warren, Senate candidate in Massachusetts
(Starts at 00:48)

Last summer I took a class at NYU Stern that forever changed my perspective. The class was called Global Perspectives on Enterprise Systems and it was taught by Robert Wright. The goal of the class was to understand why some countries develop rapidly, like the United States, while others do not develop at all.

It came down to the “Growth Diamond;” Stern professors notoriously love baseball. Home plate is a non-predatory, Lockean government. In other words, growth starts with a government that protects the life, liberty and property of its citizens. Such a government collects taxes transparently, regularly and at a reasonable rate. The government also establishes and enforces reasonable laws. Note that such a government does not need to be a democracy; though they often are.

The next phase of development, or first base, is a financial system in which capital moves from savers to borrowers. First base cannot be reached without home plate; after all, the crux of saving and lending are contracts recognized by the courts established by the government.

With home plate and first base established, the economy is prepared to take second base: entrepreneurship. Individual actors are comfortable investing into a long-term business knowing that the government will not pilfer it in the night. And even if something goes wrong, the actor has faith that the slip of paper called “insurance” will be made good. And lastly, the actor has access to capital, thanks to first base. Interestingly, not all economies move equally between bases. There are countries with non-predatory governments and financial systems that have less entrepreneurship than others.

The final stage, third base, is a management system. Basically, the entrepreneurs that flourished from a stable government and access to capital eventually grow into large, distributed organizations. These organizations have the systems required to undertake large and complex markets like air travel, chip fabrication and automobile manufacturing.

So what does this have to do with Elizabeth Warren? Simple. She understands the Growth Diamond, and more than anything she can articulate it to the American people. This speech lit-up the blogosphere and belongs in the annals of great speeches made by great Americans.