Marc Andreessen's newspaper deathwatch
What's the tech pioneer been doing since Netscape? Investing in social networks and waiting for the New York Times to die.
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(Fortune Magazine) -- I would like to apologize in advance to the New York Times for getting Marc Andreessen so worked up. That was not my intention when I met him for lunch the other day. AOL had just announced that it would no longer support Netscape, the ur-browser that Andreessen co-wrote back when the web was young. I wanted to know how he felt about his first baby, now that it's been taken off life support and is destined to die just shy of its 14th birthday.
"I don't want to talk about it," he says, settling into his window seat at Hobee's, a chain restaurant near Stanford University where he's such a familiar face that he's served iced tea with lemon without having to order it. Like me and everybody else I know, he stopped using Netscape years ago. In fact, he's a major investor in Flock, a competing "social browser" that's designed to work seamlessly with blogs and web services like Flickr and Facebook.
That's typical Andreessen, the once and future king of the startup guys: Move fast, don't look back, put your faith in the open market, and trust that the fittest will prevail.
So how does the Times figure into this? When I mentioned its dismal earnings and casually suggested that one way to save the paper and the social good it provides - call me crazy, but I want a base line for news - would be for some rich guy to ride in and set up a trust to protect it, he blew a gasket. "My company does good for the world," he growled. "Why doesn't someone protect it?"
Then he went back to his computer and launched a kind of fatwa that was immediately broadcast in the echo chamber of the blogosphere.
"I can't take it anymore," he wrote on his blog (blog.pmarca.com). "I hereby inaugurate my New York Times Deathwatch, which will continue until the last Sulzberger has left the building." The piece goes on to rip apart the Times' business strategy top to bottom, attacking everything from the techno-illiteracy of its board of directors (which boasts experts in marsupials and snack cakes but almost no expertise in the Internet) to its recent per-copy price hike. "When you have an obsolete, inconvenient physical product that nobody wants in an era of universal online access, the appropriate strategy is clearly to raise the price," he snarked. (He's not the only one gunning for the Times. A coalition of hedge funds just bought up 10% of the company and wants to install four of its own candidates on the board.)
Andreessen has always been a blunt, plainspoken guy. He grew up in a tiny town in Wisconsin, and although he moved to California in 1993 to make his fortune, he maintains a Midwestern intolerance for pretense (and, apparently, fancy lunch spots).
He's a legend in Silicon Valley for having founded and sold, by age 36, two billion-dollar companies: Netscape Communications (unloaded on AOL (TWX, Fortune 500) in 1998 for $4.2 billion) and Opsware (a server-management company that HP (HPQ, Fortune 500) bought last year for $1.6 billion). Now he's going for a three-peat: He's co-founder and chairman of Ning, which makes tools to help users start their own social networks. His timing was perfect. Ning was launched just as the MySpace-Facebook phenomenon was taking off, and by last fall it had created more than 100,000 mini social networks - for everything from high school reunions to Hugh Hefner's "college-only non-nude" Playboy U.
But Andreessen keeps circling back to the media business. I used to think he was obsessed because his browser stuck a shiv in old media, but it goes back further than that. One of his first hacks as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in 1992 was diverting cable to his SGI workstation so that he could watch CNN. Most of the 30 investments he's made since are in media-related startups.
Today, to his great delight, he has become a media player - not through his investments but through his blog. He's on my short list of daily must-reads, and his postings are regularly picked up by Techmeme, a minute-to-minute hot list of what people who love digital technology are reading. So what would he do if he were running the Times? Easy, he says. Kill the print product immediately and deliver the base line of news online only. "Take acute pain now in order to avoid years of chronic pain," he says. "Basic rule of thumb: Be on offense, not on defense." And the offense? Graft social networking features onto the online Times, of course.