Groupon Clones, Color and “The Meme of the Moment”

“Another deals site, or another social-gaming thing, or another Groupon killer, or another ‘let me show you the local restaurant app,’ — well, I just think its too d*** late to do one of those. And anybody who wants to try I wish them well, but I just think its going to be really, really hard.”

—  Mike Maples Jr., managing partner of Floodgate Capital, on what he won’t be funding in the social-media space

You could almost hear the sound of virtual business plans being crumpled into little balls and tossed into virtual garbage cans on Friday, as thousands of entrepreneurs in the Santa Ana Convention Center for Tiecon 2011 mentally scrapped their startup plans.

Maples — who described his own proclivity for funding companies “either too early or way too early” — had a practical (if somewhat depressing) tip for those in the audience looking to create the next big thing: “For me, if we are talking about it on this panel it’s probably too late,” Maples said, during a panel on the VC perspective on investing in social media.

As a rule of thumb, Maples said he is done funding social-networking platforms. Companies like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and LinkedIn have already established our social networks, and anyone else is wasting their time trying to re-invent the wheel, the venture capitalist told the conference. Said Maples:

That part of the social media wave is done and we just need to get over it. The next wave is going to be an application centered wave. Companies will leverage the fact that everybody is connected in social graphs and will take advantage of that data in a new way and re-imagine the space.

Maples was particularly dismissive of the long-term potential for photo-sharing platforms and applications like Color and Instagram. And while Color recently received $41 million in first-round funding, his dismissive position was also a popular one among his fellow panelists. And Ethan Kurzweil, a vice president at Bessenger Venture Partners, said it was dangerous to draw any positive conclusions about the popularity of photo sharing as the next big platform from early venture capital scuttlebut.  The companies, he said, could just be the “meme of the moment”.

Meanwhile, Anil Patel of Clearstone Venture Partners said that six photo sharing or printing companies have been funded in the last nine months. While he said people are rightly “dumbstruck” over the war chests they’ve amassed,  he admitted that he could see why some investors are excited.

[P]hoto-sharing behavior is actually a very primitive behavior that underlies a lot of interactions people have with each other… The seduction of photo sharing is we have this behavior, it’s taking place and we don’t even need to provide a reason for it, it just happens. And if you can harness that, if you can just take that raw energy harness it in some way, mabye it becomes a platform if there is some magic.

So where do these VC’s see opportunity in social media? The panel didn’t have much time for that discussion, but most seemed to agree that data mining and analytics for e-commerce were interesting areas still in their infancy. While companies have begun to try and harness data from our social networks, none have been able to pull that data out of social networks and harness it in a meaningful way, the panelists said.

And while he may have killed the dreams of half his audience with his opening remarks, Maples ended the panel with a bit of motivational advice, saying the next big idea could come from any industry. It will take social connection as a given, he said, and address a fundamental problem that we just don’t know about yet.

“One of the secrets of entrepreneurship is to have that unconventional, fundamental insight that the rest of the world hasn’t and be in the position to act on that insight,” he said. “And by the time the rest of the world figures it out, you are king.”