Andreessen casts a wide Net
palo alto -- In Silicon Valley, where youth is revered and twentysomethings are handed millions of dollars to start companies, 36-year-old Marc Andreessen has become an elder statesman.
His image evokes a simpler time, when the Internet seemed cute and harmless, before the bust and before the rise of Google Inc. The man who helped develop the first commercial Web browser is still referred to in some circles as the poster boy of the Internet age. They remember him as the smiling, baby-faced kid from Wisconsin who appeared on a 1996 cover of Time magazine barefoot, sitting on a throne.
But Andreessen hasn’t allowed himself to be frozen in time or relegated to has-been status. He’s still moving and shaking, and reaping the financial rewards.
Last month, Hewlett-Packard Co. shelled out $1.6 billion for the company he co-founded as a follow-up to Netscape Communications Corp. Also in July, his third, Ning Inc., a Web software operation that business partner Gina Bianchini runs, landed $44 million in its first round of venture funding.
He has also become an author. Though he was late to the blogging party, the online diary he launched in June has quickly built a readership among entrepreneurs and financiers interested in the inner workings of Silicon Valley.
He weighs in with mentor-like postings such as “When VCs say no,” “Bubbles on the brain” and “Why NOT to do a start-up.”
Silicon Valley is the land of the serial entrepreneur. But Andreessen is a breed unto himself, the rare person who keeps coming up with ideas and sticks around until the concept works, said Mark Kvamme, a venture capitalist at Sequoia Capital.
“Marc has an amazing fortitude to follow through with what he believes in,” Kvamme said. “I think he has a couple of more companies in him.”
As Friendster, MySpace and other social-networking websites tussled for consumers’ affections, Andreessen and Bianchini decided to make software tools that let people create their own social networks and other Web applications. A social network, which can be public or private, is a place online where people meet around a topic or interest and make comments, share photos and post videos.
Ning was born, with financial backing from Andreessen and some friends. Its offices are across the street in Palo Alto from today’s hot social networking company, Facebook.
“The best time to be an entrepreneur was in ’93, ’94 and ’95,” Andreessen said. “But this is a good time because the Internet is a huge global medium. We addressed a global audience from day one.”
Andreessen’s entire career has given him a front-row view of the Web’s development. Netscape lost the browser wars and withered as Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer became dominant.
In 1999, then-independent America Online Inc. bought Netscape for $4.2 billion, and Andreessen stayed on as the company’s chief technology officer. That year, he left to help start Loudcloud Inc., which ran the websites of new Internet companies, with buddy Ben Horowitz.
He also joined the board of Harmonic Communications, a software company that tracked and measured advertising. Kvamme introduced him to Bianchini, a former Goldman Sachs analyst who had co-founded Harmonic. She and Andreessen dated briefly, then became good friends.
When the Internet bust hit -- he calls it “the valley of death” -- businesses became conservative about spending on technology. Loudcloud, which went public in 2001, suffered. Many entrepreneur types left the Valley for trekking in Nepal, teaching public school, starting charities -- anything but launching companies. Andreessen and Bianchini stayed.
Andreessen and Horowitz rejiggered Loudcloud in 2002 to provide technology to help manage data centers, and they changed its name to Opsware. Andreessen spent much of 2002 on airplanes visiting prospective customers.
“He doubled down,” Bianchini said.
Andreessen called the company’s recent sale to HP “validation” of that tenaciousness.
Andreessen is on his third act with Ning, which he and Bianchini started in 2004. He is chief technology officer and Bianchini is CEO. They employ 34 people and expect to double or triple their workforce, thanks to their recent venture funding, led by Allen & Co.
Andreessen and Bianchini say Ning is different from the social-network pack because it lets people without strong technical skills make their own.
Ning, which means “peace” in Chinese, has spawned 86,000 social networks on topics such as TV shows and for groups like English soccer clubs, teachers and firefighters. TuDiabetes.com, a Ning-powered site for people with diabetes, calls itself “MySpace on insulin.”
Customers can use the service for free; Ning makes money by putting Google ads on customers’ social networks. Or, a person or group setting up a Ning community can pay about $20 a month to Ning if they want the social network to be free of ads or they want to sell ads on the space themselves.
“Both of us are inspired by the social phenomenon of EBay,” Bianchini said. “If we can give people more flexible ways to make money, we are going to succeed.”
The founders say they plan to grow over the next year by improving the service, not marketing it heavily.
It’s a strategy that evokes an earlier time, said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland.
“We’ve come back to, ‘Let’s get eyeballs and users as rapidly as we can, and we’ll worry about revenue later,’ ” he said. “The idea is to boost growth as rapidly as they can, gain attention and be picked up by a bigger media company.”
But listening to Bianchini and Andreessen, it’s hard to imagine them selling Ning. To them, social networking is a burgeoning revolution, a way for people to make their own media.
“If you aren’t using MySpace or Facebook, maybe it hasn’t been made easy,” Andreessen said. “Ning is the potential of what the Web can do.”
Andreessen now is a leaner version of his younger self. His shaved head gives him a stark, serious look. Last fall, he married Laura Arrillaga, who teaches philanthropy at Stanford University. She is the daughter of Silicon Valley real estate developer John Arrillaga, who gave a $100-million gift to Stanford. Bianchini is engaged to be married.
The years haven’t shaken Andreessen’s belief that the Internet continues to change the world, being two-way and bottom-up. And he doesn’t get people who don’t get that. The man who helped commercialize the Web rails at industries, from music labels to newspapers, for whining and wasting time before committing themselves to digital strategies.
“I’m astonished by some industries’ ability to sustain chronic pain to avoid acute pain,” he said. “You have to take drastic action.”