Sunday, September 8, 2013

From Myspace’s Ashes, Silicon Start-Ups Rise

J. Emilio Flores for The New York TimesFinding new ventures after Myspace: From left are Josh Brooks, Amit Kapur, Chris DeWolfe, Jim Benedetto, Colin Digiaro, Steve Pearman, Josh Berman and Aber Whitcomb.

IT is hardly uncommon for founders and employees of successful companies to cash in their chips and go on to start other successful companies. Perhaps the best-known example is PayPal, the Web payment service whose leaders went on to found and invest in a bunch of other companies — YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, Tesla — and to earn the nickname the PayPal mafia.

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In 2007, Chris DeWolfe, left, who was then the chief executive of Myspace, answered questions with Rupert Murdoch of News Corporation at the Web 2.0 conference in San Francisco. News Corporation acquired Myspace for $580 million in 2005 — but sold it for $35 million in 2011.

More recently, the alumni of another Internet company — a social network based in California — have generated an impressive number of spinoffs. But what is notable about these spinoffs is that they have been generated not by a spectacular success, like PayPal or Facebook, but by a distant also-ran: Myspace.

It is easy to forget that Myspace started before Facebook and could have been worth billions, but a variety of miscalculations and missed opportunities turned what was once a nearly $600 million company into an afterthought. By 2011, many of its users had abandoned it, the founding team had departed and its owner, News Corporation, sold it for just $35 million. (It is now reinventing itself as a site for musicians and other artists to connect with their fans.)

Yet from the ashes, a surprising number of start-ups have risen. Almost every member of Myspace’s founding team has begun a new venture, and several are among the leaders of Los Angeles’s blossoming start-up industry, now known as Silicon Beach. That community is growing for a number of reasons — an influx of capital, lots of young programming talent, a convenient nexus with Hollywood celebrity — but the Myspace spinoffs are a factor, too.

“In terms of creating enterprise value, of starting companies that are hiring and generating revenue, I’d say by far this is the most successful aggregation of entrepreneurs that has yet come out of L.A.,” said Paul Bricault, a venture capitalist at Greycroft Partners and a managing director with a digital media accelerator, Amplify.

Until recently, it was conventional wisdom that entrepreneurs in Los Angeles had little choice but to move north to Silicon Valley to finance their ventures, but the rise of Silicon Beach and the Myspace connection have helped alter that thinking. While the businesses started by former Myspacers have yet to produce a big exit or payday, they have amassed more than $100 million in venture capital financing.

Two of Myspace’s founders, Chris DeWolfe and Josh Berman, met as M.B.A. students in a class taught by Mr. Bricault at the University of Southern California. It was in that class that Mr. DeWolfe wrote a business plan for a social network he was then calling SiteGeist. When the site made its debut as Myspace in 2003, Mr. DeWolfe began putting together an unusual team, often basing his hiring decisions more on gut feelings than on résumés.

In early 2005, when Amit Kapur interviewed for a marketing job at Myspace, he was a year out of Stanford and his only work experience was a year in business development and digital strategy at NBC Universal. He met with Mr. DeWolfe and they talked for a few hours, after which Mr. DeWolfe asked Mr. Kapur, 23 at the time, to join the company as head of business development.

“I said: ‘Chris, I don’t really know what I’m doing yet. I can figure it out, but I don’t have the experience,’ ” Mr. Kapur said. “Chris said: ‘I believe in you. We’ll figure things out together.’ ” Although the job was daunting at first, Mr. Kapur said, he was energized by the challenge: “I wanted to prove myself, to make a dent, and Chris recognized that and gave me those opportunities.”

Today, Mr. Kapur is chief executive and co-founder — along with two friends from Myspace — of Gravity, a Web personalization technology company. As Mr. Kapur began to assemble his team at Gravity, which now has 40 employees, he modeled many of his practices on what he had seen at Myspace. “One of things I learned from Chris,” he said, “was to hire people that have the potential to do great things, well beyond what their experience and skill set show.”

At Myspace, Mr. DeWolfe sought to give his team the confidence to try new ideas and, if necessary, to fail. In 2008, Josh Brooks, who was vice president for marketing from 2005 to 2008, wrote a one-page plan for a live music and comedy show for 10,000 American troops at Camp Buehring, a few miles south of the Iraqi border in Kuwait.

Streaming a live show from the Kuwaiti desert, in the middle of an active military base, was a considerable technical and logistical challenge; more than 80 crew members and entertainers had to be flown there. Not many chief executives would have let him run with the plan, Mr. Brooks said, but the show was streamed live on Myspace to an audience of 3.5 million viewers and then became a one-hour special on FX Networks. Today, Mr. Brooks, who founded his own company, On the Run Tech, in 2011, compares running a start-up to being a “smoke jumper” who is “deployed where the hottest fires are brewing.”

Another early Myspace hire, Jamie Kantrowitz, started leading marketing efforts at Myspace in 2004, when she was 26 and had no executive experience. “There was no playbook. It was like riding on a comet every day,” said Ms. Kantrowitz, who went on to help found Gobbler, which offers high-speed file transfer and backup, and to become a partner at a tech accelerator, Launchpad LA.

BUT, perhaps predictably, there was a downside to the Myspace chaos. Many of the company’s survivors trace its decline to its uncontrolled growth and its purchase by News Corporation for $580 million in 2005. At its peak, Myspace had 76 million unique visitors a month, but in the post-acquisition period was less nimble and wound up missing opportunities to innovate, according to several early members of that team. As it swelled to more than 1,500 employees, it became cautious, political and bloated, Mr. Kapur said.

“That affected our performance and ability to innovate,” he said. “There were opportunities we just couldn’t take advantage of.”

The advent of YouTube is a good example. When the site started in February 2005, many at Myspace wanted to introduce a similar feature. Travis Katz, who had joined Myspace as general manager of international business just after the acquisition, said he remembered telling News Corporation representatives that they would need to hire 40 developers immediately and 200 the next year.

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