My investors at Fon include most of the people and companies that were involved in the recent sale of Skype. At Fon we have eBay, Janus Friis and Niklas Zennstrom personally as investors and board members, Mike Volpi personally as an investor and board member, Danny Rimer as a board member and Index Ventures as an investor, and Marc Andreessen as an investor. So for me to talk about Skype after the recent dispute for the control of this company could be dangerous. But there´s no need to be concerned. This post is not about my opinions on what just happened at Skype as those are irrelevant here. Personally I think that Janus, Niklas, Mike, Danny and Marc are all awesome guys, amazing investors and board members. So what I will speak about is how I see the future of Skype and the dangers it may face and the opportunities it may have.
Before getting started I would like to say that I have been a user of Skype from the very beginning, from way before I actually met and became partners with Janus and Niklas, that I think that Skype is a remarkable product that is way ahead of the competition and that while not yet a highly profitable company, Skype has certainly been a gift to humanity. Now having sent my thank you note, let’s talk business.
Most communication on Skype as we all know, is totally free, only occasional calls to non Skype parties are the ones that generate the $740 million revenue run rate that allows Skype to make a living. The rest is love. And those revenues are under threat from three rivals.
The first one is called Facebook. While my friends inside Facebook have not disclosed anything to me, I think it is obvious that Facebook will soon have its own Skype. And what´s amazing about Facebook is that even though its pictures apps is mediocre in comparison to Flickr, its email pales in comparison to Gmail and its chat is way worse than that of Skype (no file attachments, no this, no this no that), the growth of those apps in Facebook is explosive. While I have been in Skype since 2004, on a recent check I had around 30 people I knew on Skype and 144 on Facebook chat. When Facebook incorporates a Skype like product, how many people will go on using Skype? Facebook is getting so big that soon there will be no Facebook Out. The threat that was Skype’s threat, namely how do you make money if everyone is on Skype and there is no Skype Out, is now being transferred to Facebook. But the thing is that Facebook, another gift to humanity, has a different business model, advertising, and they could really hurt Skype.
The second threat to Skype is flat rate pricing from telcos around the world. Why would anyone use Skype Out if they have an all you can eat tariff on their phone? And all you can eat tariffs are more and more frequent. In Europe all ADSL plans come with flat rates to all fixed lines, and in USA flat plans to fixed and mobile plans are more and more common. There are also community plans like calling anyone on AT&T for free that turns AT&T mobile into a Skype. It is remarkable that these plans are available to visitors such as myself and my family. We are six and when we go to USA everyone gets a phone with an AT&T card and we all call each other for free on prepaid! And telcos have one big advantage and that is that you don’t need a computer to make a phone call 🙂
The third threat is Google Voice. Google voice is interesting because it came out of the Google Talk fiasco and it shows how relentless Google is when it gets its mind set on something (disclosure Google is also an investor in Fon). What Google Voice is doing with the free phone calls attacks the very livelihood of Skype and that is Skype out. And the integration with Gmail and Gmail contacts is amazing. Skype is weak at that, it has no email. Google first copied Skype with Gtalk and it took off but not really. Google Voice is the second derivative of the Skype attack, and is going well. The $50 million acquisition of Grand Central that resulted in Google Voice stands up there with the acquisition of Keyhole that resulted in Google Earth as two of the best M&A moves of Google so far.
So considering that Skype is under attack from Facebook, the largest telcos in the world and Google how can it be a good business to buy Skype?
Well the key here for the new investors in Skype is not whether Skype will rule the world but whether it will be worth more than what the investors paid for it. And after giving you the cons here are some arguments and strategies in favor of the acquisition.
Skype is simple. Michael Arrington and all of Silicon Valley may find Google Voice amazing but is the average global citizen ready to use it? Massively use it? You download Skype, you find your friends on Skype, you talk. And if you don’t find them you Skype out. And when you talk you can also do video. I LOVE video calls on Skype. I used to use them for people I really cared about, relatives, close friends. Now I even do business calls on video with Skype. It just gives you more of a sense of what is going through the other person´s mind. And Skype is the leader on video quality. So simplicity plus video may be a good way to beat flat plans from telcos and avoid being Tivoed. If the video services can migrate to mobile phones Skype is on to something.
Skype can include advertising. If Gmail reads your emails and places ads why can´t Skype do the same thing on their chat or even their voice channels? How far are we from systems that listen to what you say and just as you finish saying “let´s go to Ibiza for the weekend” they start showing you cheap flights to Ibiza. Gmail proved that if you give people a great service they don’t care if you spy on them. That could be an enormous revenue source. So far Google has been kind to Skype even including it in the Google pack. Maybe a Google deal for advertising is in the making.
Facebook is not the only community in the world, there is Linked In, Xing and other business networks. Those “business types” work best with Skype. I believe that as Facebook squeezes everybody in its quest to Microsoft the world (Mark Zuckerberg told me that Microsoft is his model) a few Apples will emerge. Skype could be one of them. Apple has a tiny fraction of the PC market, Dell dwarfs it in revenues. But Apple dominates the over $1000 PC segment. Skype could position itself as the communicator of choice for businesses. And that has tremendous value.
After my first day at Brainstorm in Half Moon Bay I have this comment to make. Great business leaders such as Michael Dell and Jeff Bezos, people whose companies reach hundreds of millions of consumers and whose revenues are in the tens of billions, are not necessarily great communicators. While bloggers who reach millions and whose ad revenues are in the single digit millions, people like Robert Scoble, Kara Swisher and Om Malik, are phenomenal, entertaining, insightful communicators. Dell´s and Bezos´sessions were hard to endure, while the bloggers where tremendously fun.
What I don´t understand though is how come people who do so much are able to communicate so little and people who do so little in comparison, as the bloggers, can communicate so much. Or is it that business leaders like Michael Dell or Jeff Bezos could present much more interesting stuff but because they manage publicly traded companies their hands are tied when it gets to talking to the public? While I think that some of that is true, as I have had the opportunity to have social and private conversations both with Jeff Bezos and Michael Dell, what I can say is that CEO´s like them achieve so much because they are focused, not because they are amazing communicators. In my talks with Michael Dell in private for example, I have found him to be extremely knowledgeable (no surprise there) about the computer industry, about his competition, and about the exact situation at his own company, the challenges, the opportunities. But when it gets to talking about the world the impression I get is that Michael feels that his hands are full with his $61bn revenue empire. Kind of… what else is there to know well? And same is true of Jeff Bezos, amazing understanding of his consumers.
In Spanish they say “el que mucho abarca poco aprieta”, something like if your reach is wide your targeting is poor. Both Michael and Jeff have an amazing understanding of their target, their consumers, and that is all they are focused on. As Michael Dell put it today, we have “big ears” at Dell. And they do, and they are tuned in to the Dell consumer. And this obsession, which makes Michael so successful, may not make him the most interesting speaker. Michael Dell is about learning what he needs for him to make the best computer he can make for you. He is not about sharing his trade secrets.
Now sometimes some business leaders can actually communicate extremely well in public, as in the case of Steve Jobs. But interestingly, as well as Steve Jobs communicates to the masses, he is almost rude at a personal level. On a one to one basis, Jeff Bezos is funny, considerate, kind. So is Michael Dell. Steve Jobs is the opposite, most of those who don´t know him personally think he is great, most of those who do know him think he is abrasive and difficult, a genius, but extremely hard to deal with.
So what´s the conclusion here? That I still need to find the business leader who is both fascinating to listen to in public, great in private and very successful at running his company.
At FON we are using the tactics of democracy in business. We are, for example, planning to run city wide elections among foneros to select our city managers instead of going to headhunters to find us the right person. Also at FON, at least so far, we don´t advertise and we don´t have a PR firm. As in the world of politics, at FON we speak, or in our case, we blog.
Now, as I look further into the political process of well functioning democracies (yes, they do exist!) I am surprised by one finding. Democratic politics seem to produce more competitive behaviour than business practices. Take, for example, the case of mobile phone pricing in Europe and the obvious collusion that exists among the three to four leading operators in each country on fixed to mobile rates and on roaming rates. At the same time, compare this monopolistic behavior, so prevalent among three to four players per country, to the tremendous competition that exists on almost every issue between Labor and Conservatives in the UK or between Partido Popular and PSOE (the socialists) in Spain.
Why is it that two political parties can behave more competitively than three to four mobile phone companies? The answer, in my view, lies in the different types of monopolies that politics and business creates. Democratic politics is in a way a quasi monopoly on government…that is temporary. Therefore you either win and have almost all the power (Aznar before the last election in Spain) or lose and have practically no power (Aznar now). In this type of scenario, competition for obtaining the monopoly right to power is fierce. But when companies can do well colluding, each one making huge profits and dividing the market, the number of players is less likely to have an impact on monopolistic behavior. As a result, we have an incredibly non competitive per minute pricing in the mobile phone world in Europe. And this is but one example in which corporate behavior leads to monopolistic practices. There are many others.