Don’t buy that internet company

By Felix Salmon
December 14, 2010
Jim Surowiecki in this week's New Yorker.

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“The history of the Internet is, in part, a series of opportunities missed,” says Jim Surowiecki in this week’s New Yorker. Blockbuster could have bought Netflix for $50 million dollars; Excite turned down the chance to buy Google for less than $1 million.

But how valuable were those opportunities, really? If Blockbuster had spent $50 million on Netflix, then it would just have run out of money that much more quickly. There’s no chance that Blockbuster’s management would have let Netflix grow, unencumbered, in the way that it did independently. Similarly, Google would have been stifled as part of Excite: it would have been nothing more than one of many search algorithms competing on the internet.

Buying internet companies is very, very hard: even if they are set to be very successful on their own, that’s no reason to believe that they will have similar success in-house. Google bought Foursquare back in 2005, when it was called Dodgeball, but then closed it down; only when its founders left Google and recreated the company as Foursquare on their own were they able to succeed.

And so I’m suspicious that Surowiecki’s employer, Conde Nast, is going to do well with its new $500 million warchest. Conde is rich, and can buy companies, but at that point the problems start: it’s always much easier to spend money on acquisitions than it is on internal growth, with the result that those acquisitions can end up starved of money. Conde is a particular case in point: it bought Reddit and neglected it so badly that the site ended up having to run a pledge drive to raise needed funds.

Big established companies with their own revenue streams simply don’t have the skillset needed to be the next Y Combinator or Softbank, and they probably shouldn’t try. If Conde is smart, it’ll restrict itself to taking minority stakes in companies where it can be strategically helpful. Otherwise, it’s liable to end up looking like News Corp with MySpace.

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