The Age of Revenues

I was talking to a friend in Silicon Valley last night who told me about a consumer Internet startup that is generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue, with eye-popping year-over-year growth. What was striking about the conversation wasn’t the revenue itself, but that I’d never heard of the company it came from. This has happened half a dozen times in the past month.

What that means is that there are more Internet startups with massive revenue growth than I can keep track of, and I can keep track of quite a few. It means that when TechCrunch’s Sarah Lacy argues that high-revenue startups like Zynga and Facebook operate in a completely different universe than the rest of Silicon Valley, she isn’t completely right.

We heard the same argument from plenty of folks when we wondered what Mint would be worth now: that the increase in valuations of Zynga and Facebook are totally unrelated to those of earlier-stage startups, because only a few venture-backed Internet companies are generating serious revenues.

What I’m seeing instead is different: yes Zynga and Facebook are in the major leagues, but there is a very healthy farm system with plenty of prospects moving up through the ranks. This is why the broad-based increase in valuations isn’t just  inflation, but the result of Internet startups’ getting much, much better at generating revenue.

What happened? First, at the end of 2008 startups finally stopped listening to the most misinterpreted — and sometimes just wrong — advice in the Internet’s history: Chris Anderson’s insistence, just as Apple opened the iTunes store to software and venture funding hit the skids, that everything on the Internet be free.

To be sure, the idea of a free trial application is a good one, but many entrepreneurs became squeamish about ever asking consumers to get out their wallets. Music was Mr. Anderson’s primary example of a good that consumers would stop buying, but now Pandora, the company with the temerity to charge for music, is going public.

As we’ve argued many, many times before, as early as 2008, a whole new generation of entrepreneurs has learned from Steve Jobs to ask consumers to pay, early and often, for mobile applications like Angry Birds, or virtual goods in Farmville, or actual goods like clothestextbooks and baby gear:

Startups have turned to the most direct way to get money: from their users. And consumers are ready to buy, buying software fast-food style on the iPhone, and shelling out for premium subscriptions on sites like Picnik and Animoto.

The change has been good, for startups and for the consumers buying their software, the quality of which has improved immeasurably over the past few years. Now, most of the companies that got serious about generating revenues are growing like crazy. It isn’t too stuck-up to call this change a new Internet era.

The first era was the 1990′s Age of Eyeballs, when every website sought to get as many visitors as possible, without regard for the cost of gaining each visitor or the revenues each generated.  The second was the mid-2000′s Age of Acquisition, when Paul Graham encouraged most entrepreneurs to build websites as features of a larger product, and the goal was to get bought by Google or some lesser light. Since big, unsustainable startups had failed in 1990s, small became  beautiful.

Now we are in The Age of Revenues, in which many Internet startups are maturing into big companies with big revenues. We’ll see more companies invest in large tele-sales operations — the whale-hunting salesmen are mostly relics, as small transactions have flourished like plankton — and we’ll see more companies grow, with more accretive acquisitions at much higher prices. And though there will undoubtedly be more ups and downs, we’ll see more public offerings too.

With great revenues come great power: a new generation of Internet titans. After years of insisting that the Internet had matured, nobody now believes that in two years the only Web behemoths will be Microsoft, Google and Yahoo. In fact, folks have begun to doubt that any of those three will rule the Internet the way they once did.

It’s an amazing turn-about. 2008 year wasn’t, as Sequoia claimed, the death of good times, but the birth of a new, long-lived era of broad and massive revenue growth. The new school of financiers at Sequoia were right about the global economy, which is still a disaster zone outside of Silicon Valley. They were just wrong about how entrepreneurs would react to it.