Neil's firm Index Ventures is probably best known in the web 2.0 world for investing in these innovative VoIP or WiFi services: Skype, Rebtel and FON. They also have a stake in Last.fm and Netvibes (and many more!). Interestingly those 5 companies are all non-Silicon Valley ones - which backs up a point that Neil makes later in the interview, that "great entrepreneurs can emerge anywhere". He also said that European businesses "tend to extend beyond their comfort zone and globalize sooner than US ones". There are more nuggets in the full interview...
R/WW: Looking at upcoming web technologies, which trends do you see becoming increasingly important over the next 12-18 months?
Neil: Over the last 10 years the web experience has altered immeasurably - from a point where it wasn't keeping up with the business innovations because it was too slow or too expensive or too clumsy, to one in which the web experience is pretty good and enables a bunch of new businesses to thrive; that would have previously been constrained by the technology. In this context, we are interested in all kinds of businesses that take advantage of this new technological headroom - to create dominant positions in sectors like retailing, advertising, communications, education and entertainment.
R/WW: In the blogosphere a certain type of 'web 2.0 ' company is endlessly hyped - e.g. Flickr, del.icio.us, YouTube - while other deserving companies struggle to get attention from bloggers. What types of Web products are currently under-hyped, in your opinion?
Neil: I think companies like digg and del.icio.us belong to a category that gets a lot of play because they have managed to hit a nerve - with a small but very vocal, self-referential community that is disproportionately represented on the web.
YouTube and Flickr fall into a different category that resonates with a much larger community of users, whose individual voices may be smaller, but collectively add up to a groundswell.
Both groups of companies are interesting to study because they are clearly doing something meaningful. However I'd rather invest in companies like Stardoll, Netvibes and Last.fm - companies that fall into the latter category.
R/WW: What are the main differences in the Web industry in Europe versus Silicon Valley, other parts of the US, or Asia?
Neil: I don't see major differences. The web is the closest thing we have to a level playing field.
The traditional advantage of US businesses has been that they can tap a huge, monolithic market without dealing with multiple languages, currencies, legal systems and advertising media. On the web, the difficulties of dealing with this complexity is somewhat simplified, which makes it easier for any business to be global on the web.
The reality is that european businesses tend to extend beyond their comfort zone and globalize sooner than US ones. And since customers don't know or even care where a web business is actually based, as long as their needs are met, european businesses have a fair shot at global markets. Actually, to this day, most people just assume that Skype came from Silicon Valley!
R/WW: For a Next Generation Web startup, which is more important - building the technology with defensible IP, or just putting your beta product out there and growing your customer base?
Neil: I don't see many internet businesses that have built barriers based on IP. The best ones just do a very good job of getting the essential functionality out there early - and then leverage this to attract a loyal base of users who keep coming back and telling others about the service... because the feature set keeps expanding and the experience never lets them down. Those are the one we look for and that we try to help build. In this context, using open source platforms and exploiting the power of those communities and standards makes a lot of sense - because it allows companies to focus on what really locks in customers, which is rarely only the technology.
R/WW: How does an entrepreneur get on your radar?
Neil: So far the challenge has been how to get on their radar! Europe is a big place and great entrepreneurs can emerge anywhere. The best way to get our attention is to show us some concrete evidence that by working with you, we can build something significant. It doesn't have to be pretty or have all of the issues worked out, but it has to be compelling.
We try to make ourselves very available to entrepreneurs who want to talk to us. If they are ready to face the challenges of taking on the world with their business, getting in front of us should be a piece of cake!