A Brief Company History
The Infomediary. In February 1999, four of us sat around in the backyard of a house on the Stanford campus (we were either current or former Stanford students) and created a new concept – the online infomediary. We realized that individual users of the Internet, by their actions and the information they were providing (both willingly and not), were creating tremendous value. Yet none of this value was accruing back to the individual users.
We also realized that individuals held much more information about themselves which they might be willing to share if they would share in the profits from this information, and if other conditions - such as privacy and security - were satisfied. We knew that companies were willing to "pay" for increased information about users. But no system existed to bridge the gap between these two parties.
AllAdvantage.com. So, we launched AllAdvantage.com in the spring of 1999 in an attempt to bridge this gap. By downloading and using the AllAdvantage.com Viewbar, members were effectively "renting" some of their computer screen and their clickstream data for hourly cash payments.
This "get paid to the surf the web" concept proved wildly successful with consumers. Tens of millions of people are happy to share some non-personal information and share in the profits that are being made on the Web, even though this was being questioned in the business press. The concept also proved to be highly successful in generating revenues, as most people agree that AllAdvantage.com generated more revenue in its first 12 months of operations than any online consumer/advertising company in history.
Ultimately – and unfortunately rather quickly – AllAdvantage.com failed as a company because we relied too heavily on venture capital financing and our growth in members far outstripped our growth in revenues early on. Put simply, we signed up members in Internet time and sold ads (our primary form of revenue) in old-fashioned media time. The AllAdvantage.com model started paying members as soon as they downloaded and started using the Viewbar, but it took time to monetize these incremental hours.
As the online ad market and the Internet financing markets crashed in 2000-01, the revenues from the business could not keep up with the rapid growth in members (and their associated fixed hourly costs). We unfortunately had to close the business, even though new members were continuing to join the network.
While we had no choice but to shut down the business, AllAdvantage.com did deliver everything it promised to members: We mailed out over $100 million in checks to members, and advertisers delivered the most targeted, information-rich advertising opportunity on the Web.
The company maybe failed, but the ideas behind it never did…
Where are we today? Online advertising, after stalling in 2001-02, is bigger than ever (Google, of course, has changed everything). Targeted search and contextual text ads – almost non-existent in 1999 – are now everywhere. Companies – Google and Yahoo, for example – are trying to convince users to download "toolbars" (sound familiar?) to gather more information from their members. All this information – and the companies that gather it – is worth more than ever. Yet the individual users still do not have an effective way to get their share back.
YouTube was acquired for $1.65 billion by Google in October 2006. The story of how three guys made hundreds of millions of dollars in one year is a great tale of entrepreneurial success. But what happened to the first users who posted their videos on the site and told their friends to do the same? We don't hear about them, because they did not get anything (other than free video hosting). Wasn't it really these users that helped turn YouTube into a multi-billion dollar company? Sure the site is great and the founders deserve all the credit they get, but it is the users who ultimately made it valuable. There are plenty of video sites, and if it wasn't YouTube, another site could have filled the space, become a household name and been acquired for an amazing price.
We are not trying to pick on YouTube (which we happen to love using). How about the early users of Skype? What about those who first downloaded the software, made calls to their friends in different countries and told their parents to use it as well? They did not see a penny of the $2.6 billion that eBay paid for the company in September 2005. And MySpace? How about the millions of members there? How did they do when News Corp. bought the company for almost $600 million? After all, it was the members that Rupert Murdoch was after when he purchased the site.
The point we are trying to make here is that there are plenty of social networking sites out there, but it is the members that make these sites and services valuable. Yet, they get no monetary value from it.
We could go on. But the story is always the same: users (and the information they bring with them) are valuable. Creating a system that enables users to share in all these profits is the next big thing. We call it an economic network. Others call it a global online community co-op. Or "Linux for consumers." It's a big idea. And it's happening now.
AGLOCO. We started AGLOCO at a coffee shop near the Stanford campus. We sat down with a group of Stanford graduate students to design the next generation of the Internet enterprise using the infomediary as one of the foundation blocks.
We decided we wanted to build the economic network that enables individuals on the Web to share in the profits that their data and their actions help create. AGLOCO is more than a Web site and it is more than a Viewbar company. It is a network that links people, their information and their friends together to form something bigger.
Like all networks that have come before (from the Internet itself to MySpace), this one gets stronger as it gets bigger. AGLOCO with 1,000 or 10,000 members is not much more than the sum of its parts. But AGLOCO with 1 million or 10 million members starts to become important. It's important because it changes the consumer-company relationship online and changes the way everyone thinks about their online experience.
Why It Works. AGLOCO works because the network effects are self perpetuating. It gets stronger as it gets bigger. With more members and stronger cash flows, the profits that the members share in increase – and this draws in more users and hence stronger cash flows. The incentive to join early and tell many friends is big, as early members who help build the network stand to benefit the most (similar to nearly all start-ups, where the early employees tend to share disproportionately in the success of the company).
As AGLOCO grows, the economic incentive continues to grow as it is able to offer more and more value for its members. Unlike AllAdvantage.com which incurred incremental costs for each additional member-hour, AGLOCO generates positive free cash flow from each additional member-hour and has virtually no incremental cash expenses for additional use of the Viewbar. AGLOCO will have standard operating costs (site maintenance, bandwidth, insurance, telephones, office space, sales and administration etc.), but like Google these costs should be very low compared to the revenue Members generate.
The Members Own the Company. That's right – 100% of the company is member-owned. Users make good ideas valuable. Good ideas are great, but without members, they are just that – ideas. Every decision is made by asking what is best for the members over the long-term. It's a new way of thinking, but it works because we are all in it together. So how do we make money?
We Own the Management Company. The employees and investors own the management company. The management company collects 10% of the revenues of AGLOCO (like Tom Cruise pays his agent 10%). This should be enough incentive to continue to attract a great team of highly talented people that AGLOCO needs to maximize the value to its Member/shareholders.
Trust is Everything. We lose your trust, and the network fails. We work on behalf of the members and everything we do must keep that in mind. Our members know what we are doing with their data and how we are using it for their benefit. Do you know how other Web sites are collecting your data or how they are using it? Chances are, you don't. Think about it.
No cost to a Member – Ever. AGLOCO never costs anything for Members. Ask former AllAdvantage.com members what it cost them to join and most will try to remember how much they were receiving in monthly checks (that's right – receiving).
Privacy is paramount. No spam, no pop-ups, no selling information, no emails from people you don't know, no emails to people you don't know, and no tricks. Period. Our track record is public – there are no hidden costs. The upside for members is potentially very large and the sky is the limit. The downside is essentially nil.
Be Patient. People always want everything right away. We do too. But things take time, so stick with us. It takes time, money and people to build everything, and we'll get there. Members at AllAdvantage.com complained that we were moving too slow, and then after the company was gone they realized how good it had been and complained that it had gone away! It takes time to be able to send checks for over $100 million to members. And so it will take time to set up an economic network to share the wealth of the Internet with millions of online users. However, you have a role to play and can help us speed up the process, even making some money along the way. Here's how:
Get Involved. Pitch in. Tell your friends and build your referral network. Design a Web site explaining the economic network (you can probably do it better than us). Email us your ideas. Design a cool Viewbar. Tell your company they should partner with us. Write about us on your blog. Ask yourself how you want to share in the value of the Internet. Think big. It's your company. Have fun.