Earlier this week, RockMelt, a Facebook browser launched to massive press coverage from most major publications including GigaOM.
I was as fascinated by the story of RockMelt cofounders Eric Vishria and Tim Howes as I was by their belief that they had a product (and technology) that would be able to find a solid footing in the crowded and hyper-competitive browser marketplace. To me, the story was the audaciousness of their ambition and why they started — of all things — a browser company.
Frankly, my last question to them was “who invested in the company.” It happened to be Marc Andreessen who is credited for creating the first viable and web-scale browser, which is a nice story hook, but it’s not the story. Unfortunately, many in the media reported the hook and stopped there. The focus of the news went from the browser, technology and the founders immediately to the investors.
Lately, it has become commonplace in the Valley to shift focus away from founders and put it on the investors. Some might argue that in case of RockMelt, it was the investor connection that made the story worthy of attention. (I would disagree with them.) To me those are the wrong reasons to pay attention to a company and its technology.
I have been writing about startups for a very long time — so long, that I can remember when Marc Andreessen was still in Illinois and long way from becoming the newest King of the Valley. And in the years that have passed I have written about some of the most memorable startups –- Ciena, Juniper, Cerent, Infinera, Google, Twitter, and Facebook –- and I have written about the forgettable ones.
Like most reporters during the bubble, in my early startup-focused writing, I lavished too much attention on the investors. My then-editor David Churbuck would call me into his office, sit me down and tell me that investors are a good way to judge if a company is worthy of a story. He would tell me that investment dollars and investors help you define a story, but they are never the story.
The more I paid attention to that advice, the better I became at choosing startups to write about. The technology was always the primary criteria, but in the late 1990s, David’s approach prevented me from getting too hopped up about here-today-gone-tomorrow Internet names such as Kozmo.com and Pets.com. At that time, investors had became the focus of attention (media and otherwise), and we all know how that ended.
While David’s lessons brought discipline when it came to evaluating startups, my deep appreciation for founders, I admit, came only after I started GigaOM. It is a tough life, where sacrifices and relentlessness are par for the course, no matter how big or how successful a startup becomes.
While investors are great counselors, one must never forget that it is founders and their team who build businesses. Jim Barksdale, CEO of Netscape and the founder of The Barksdale Group venture fund, once said, “The main thing is the main thing.” When it comes to technology startups, it is the founders and the technology — that’s the main thing.
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