Josh Elman's career looks like a veritable collect 'em all of hot startups: Over the past decade, the Stanford graduate been an early employee at LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. Now he's a venture capitalist, having followed his friend and mentor Reid Hoffman to Greylock Partners. In this week's installment of Elevator Pitch, we ask Elman about the future of social media.
Q How'd you get into this racket?
A When I graduated from college, I put this objective on my résumé: "To use technology to create products that make people's lives better." I started as an engineer 15 years ago and have been lucky to join some great founders and work on building products that I think have achieved my résumé objective at least a little bit.
When I left Twitter, I thought about venture capital as a potential option, mostly because I wanted to see if there was a way I could work for more than one company at a time. I also thought it would be a great opportunity to share many of the lessons I had learned helping companies get to escape velocity.
I was lucky enough to have known Reid Hoffman since he hired me at LinkedIn in 2004, as well as (Greylock's) David Sze, who invested in LinkedIn. In addition to my relationship with Reid and David, I was impressed that everyone at Greylock was a former operator -- an aspect that I think lends such important perspective when helping entrepreneurs.
Q What kinds of pitches are you looking for now?
A I look for ideas where the founders have a huge vision for how the world will look different in a few years and why their products will be at the center of that shift.
I get excited by anyone trying to build useful, simple products that can ultimately become large connected networks, marketplaces and platforms. I love new apps that you can imagine millions and millions of people using every day -- creating new daily habits or solving problems that matter to them.
Two things I like to dig into in every pitch are: "Why now?" -- what are the forces and trends that make it likely this idea can turn into a huge company in the next few years? And "How does it spread?" -- what innately in the product will help get this quickly and cheaply into the hands of millions of users?
Q What's the biggest mistake entrepreneurs make?
A I have mad respect for everyone who decides to found a company and takes on that challenge and burden, but one common mistake I see is that people underestimate how hard it is to create something that will grow and spread on its own. I hear a lot of "if you build it they will come," where people believe they can create a product that is so good that users will flock to it.
I think it is important to spend as much time on a product's distribution plan as on the product itself.
Q What's the next big thing going to be?
A We're just at the beginning of a new world of connectivity and data. In addition to our living rooms, kitchens and bedrooms, there are computers in our pockets, wrists, appliances and even eyewear. The amount of time people spend on a traditional computer outside of work is about to drastically decline. I predict that if you can't do it on mobile, you won't do it.
But this shift to mobile, social and data-aware means there is ample opportunity for the many existing ways of currently doing things to be transformed -- and we're already starting to see that today.
Q You've worked at Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, which is a pretty impressive troika. What's the future of social media going to look like?
A A lot of people think social is dead as a category, but I think it couldn't be more alive. I find it incredible to look at how teens are using technology today: They are sharing pictures and videos on Instagram, Vine, Imgur and Snapchat. They are messaging each other with Line, WeChat, MessageMe and Kik. We are in a new world where the best interfaces are based on touch instead of a keyboard and mouse -- and since typing isn't as fast with touch, teens are pioneering the use of pictures, stickers and new languages to quickly communicate instead.
What's even more interesting is that like everyone else, teens also care about privacy, and that is another big change for social platforms. What you'll see over the next few years is that just as LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook brought us more openness and sharing, companies like Nextdoor will let you create a trusted private network for your neighborhood. Path will make sharing much more trusted and intimate with close friends. Whisper will let you share anonymously.
There will still be innovation in social media and networks, but we'll also continue to see innovation in privacy.
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.