Venture capitalists warm up to Internet again

A new wave on online services is hitting it big with users while providing sustainable business models for their startups

Venture capitalists swore off Internet companies after dot-coms tumbled like dominoes in 2000 and 2001, but in recent years enthusiasm for this sector has been renewed.

This restored confidence from early-stage investors has allowed entrepreneurs to develop a new wave of online services that have hit it big with users while providing sustainable business models for their startups. Social bookmarking, social networking, blogging, online video, photo sharing, content syndication and podcasting have all recently changed online communications among consumers and organizations.

Along the way, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs have learned valuable lessons from the dot-com debacle. The result: a healthier investment and entrepreneurial climate that again supports Internet innovation. Although some worry that this renewed optimism could yield a new Internet bubble, experts say some principles have taken hold for good.

For starters, venture capitalists today claim to better understand the products and services offered by startups they fund and apply stricter principles when evaluating whether to back a company. In the dot-com heyday, venture capitalists often poured money on companies without giving their business plans rigorous reviews and without grasping the startups' core technology.

"In the late 1990s, VCs had a sense of the promise of Internet services but no real understanding of how those services got built, differentiated, defended and became businesses," says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. "Now people have a better appreciation for what makes for an attractive user experience and a sustainable business."

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs now build useful online services and companies that require modest startup investment. This contrasts with the excesses of the late 1990s, when startups often spent millions of dollars before launching services. Many point at Google Inc. -- a survivor of the dot-com carnage -- as the company that set the example for this now popular formula of spending moderately while focusing on delivering an online service that generates mass appeal and attracts online advertisers.

Startups that came after Google have embraced its formula and mixed it with the so-called Web 2.0 approach: fostering interaction among their users by letting them tag, describe and share content. This has allowed them to generate a sense of community among their users known generically as "social" computing. These startups also promote open architectures so that external developers can build applications and extensions for their services, the so-called "mashup" phenomenon that has been adopted widely by larger companies.

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