Back in the 1980s, Guy Kawasaki gained fame for successfully marketing the then oddball Macintosh personal computer to software developers. After four years of using what he called "fervor and zeal" to evangelize Apple, he left the company to launch his own.
Since then, Kawasaki has not lost his zeal for entrepreneurialism. He's now the managing director of venture capital firm Garage Technology Ventures. Kawasaki made headlines recently for a couple of reasons: his launch of news aggregator Alltop.com and his quirky but hardball interview with Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer at the company's Mix conference last month. Kawasaki asked about Microsoft's offer to buy Yahoo, what was "up" with Vista, and teased Ballmer about the virtues of his MacBook Air. Ballmer teased right back. Kawasaki recently talked start-ups with U.S. News:
So, what's the goal for Alltop? My mom has checked out your health site.
It's for people like your mom who don't know and don't want to know—and nor do you want to teach them—what an RSS feed is. At some point with Google Search, if she types in health and she finds 501 million matches, that's not too helpful either. So what we're trying to create is this magazine rack of the future, where she goes to health.alltop.com and sees at most 100 publications about health with their five latest stories and is able to mouse over the headline to see what the first paragraph is and see if she wants to click through.
What was the genesis for the site?
The way we came up with the concept, period, is that we have this other site called Truemors.com, where people post news that they find, and we are listed in a site called popurls. Popurls is sort of like Alltop, except it's only for tech and business. We noticed so much [traffic] was coming from popurls that we said: "Wow, this kind of aggregation site must be popular." I knew the owner of Popurls and asked him, "Are you going to branch out?" He said no. So I said, "OK, I am." And the rest is history.
Alltop is very simple. Are you surprised you've caught flak for that?
Double flak. Because I did something simple and it's me. Expectations are higher. The beef on Alltop is it's a rip-off of popurls, which, admittedly, it is, and I don't make any bones about it. Popurls is listed on our home page as a source because we like them so much. Typically when you steal from somebody, you don't link to them.
The beef is, secondly, "I could do this myself with iGoogle, Netvibes, or Pageflix," which is true. But how long would it take? Even if you did, you would not be able to jam 100 things on one page like we do. But you could do something similar. You could also set up your feeds into Google Reader or NetNewsWire, but the interface is not conducive to scanning.
So people say that they could do it themselves, or they could clone it and do it in half an hour. You know, if you're Guy Kawasaki and you create a car that gets 500 miles a gallon with zero emissions, people on the Internet would say: "I could have done that in half an hour, and it's been done before. What's the big deal? I expected something more from him." Meanwhile, they didn't do it, right? They're still living at home with their mothers. So, that's my life.
Was simplicity key, given its $10,000 start-up cost?
That has been taken out of context. It is literally true: We've paid $10,000 so far. However, people use that as a rationale, that Guy is doing this as an experiment to see if it can be done for $10,000. It's actually not true. I'm doing it to make money.
In a perfect world, if this takes off, I will just sit at home while the servers are running, sucking in RSS feeds. People like your mom are using it, Procter & Gamble is advertising at health.alltop.com, and somebody's paying thousands of dollars to be at the top level of the feed—just like Google-sponsored searches—and I will be at home, just cashing checks.
Has the start-up so far been as successful as you expected?
It's been about what I've expected. We were getting about 13,000 visitors a day after three weeks, which is good, but would I like 130,000 per day? Sure. Did I fear getting 1,300 a day? Absolutely. It just depends on how you want to look at it. At 13,000, it's not yet a business. At 130,000 it's a business.
What are some of the principles of your launch that would be useful for other entrepreneurs?
Something like Alltop can be done out of your garage, your spare bedroom, whatever. You know, we don't need a physical presence. No one comes to our office. This is typical Silicon Valley: You do it on the side until it gets big enough that you can quit your day job.
No. 2: It's very capital efficient. Admittedly, most people could not do it for $10,000. I have significant advantages because of my connections. But let's say it's really $50,000. It's still $50,000. This is credit card-level money.
What's your advice to entrepreneurs in this current downturn?
If you are an entrepreneur, you can't really let it affect your brain too much that the U.S. government tells you we're in a recession or not. Because that is a very big macro statistic. All you care about is whether your small business is successful or not. Not the whole economy. [Americans] go to bed one night, and the next morning we read on the front page that, according to the Department of Labor, we're in a recession. What happened in that eight hours we were asleep? Did the world come to an end?
The key, for a career person, is what's your career? Not what the Department of Labor macro statistic is.
Your interview with Steve Ballmer was very unconventional, but you also asked some tough questions. Did you spend a lot of time preparing for it?
Zero. Maybe I should not admit that. They had a preconference call, and I asked: "Is anything off limits? Can I ask why Vista sucks?" They said: "Ask anything you want." And I said, "OK." I had not talked to Steve until 20 minutes prior to the event, and we went on stage and we let it rip. But that's what I do. To some people, that would be frightening. They would have prepped it. But that's what I do. That's the nature of my persona. I also had an advantage because I know the topic and I don't give a s—- what he could do to me. I have zero vested interest.