Marc Andreessen casts a wide Net

Marc Andreessen casts a wide Net

The onetime boy wonder of the Web has evolved into a serial entrepreneur
By Michelle Quinn, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 13, 2007

PALO ALTO — In Silicon Valley, where youth is revered and twentysomethings are
handed millions of dollars to start companies, 36-year-old Marc
Andreessen has become an elder statesman.

His image evokes a simpler time, when the Internet seemed cute and
harmless, before the bust and before the rise of Google Inc. The man
who helped develop the first commercial Web browser is still referred
to in some circles as the poster boy of the Internet age. They remember
him as the smiling, baby-faced kid from Wisconsin who appeared on a
1996 cover of Time magazine barefoot, sitting on a throne.

But Andreessen hasn’t allowed himself to be frozen in time or relegated to
has-been status. He’s still moving and shaking, and reaping the
financial rewards.
Last month, Hewlett-Packard Co. shelled out
$1.6 billion for the company he co-founded as a follow-up to Netscape
Communications Corp. Also in July, his third, Ning Inc., a Web software
operation that business partner Gina Bianchini runs, landed $44 million
in its first round of venture funding.

He has also become an
author. Though he was late to the blogging party, the online diary he
launched in June has quickly built a readership among entrepreneurs and
financiers interested in the inner workings of Silicon Valley.

He weighs in with mentor-like postings such as "When VCs say no," "Bubbles on the brain" and "Why NOT to do a start-up."

Silicon
Valley is the land of the serial entrepreneur. But Andreessen is a
breed unto himself, the rare person who keeps coming up with ideas and
sticks around until the concept works, said Mark Kvamme, a venture
capitalist at Sequoia Capital.

"Marc has an amazing fortitude to
follow through with what he believes in," Kvamme said. "I think he has
a couple of more companies in him."

As Friendster, MySpace and
other social-networking websites tussled for consumers’ affections,
Andreessen and Bianchini decided to make software tools that let people
create their own social networks and other Web applications. A social
network, which can be public or private, is a place online where people
meet around a topic or interest and make comments, share photos and
post videos.

Ning was born, with financial backing from
Andreessen and some friends. Its offices are across the street in Palo
Alto from today’s hot social networking company, Facebook.

"The
best time to be an entrepreneur was in ’93, ’94 and ’95," Andreessen
said. "But this is a good time because the Internet is a huge global
medium. We addressed a global audience from day one."

Andreessen’s
entire career has given him a front-row view of the Web’s development.
Netscape lost the browser wars and withered as Microsoft Corp.’s
Internet Explorer became dominant.

In 1999, then-independent
America Online Inc. bought Netscape for $4.2 billion, and Andreessen
stayed on as the company’s chief technology officer. That year, he left
to help start Loudcloud Inc., which ran the websites of new Internet
companies, with buddy Ben Horowitz.

He also joined the board of
Harmonic Communications, a software company that tracked and measured
advertising. Kvamme introduced him to Bianchini, a former Goldman Sachs
analyst who had co-founded Harmonic. She and Andreessen dated briefly,
then became good friends.

When the Internet bust hit — he calls
it "the valley of death" — businesses became conservative about
spending on technology. Loudcloud, which went public in 2001, suffered.
Many entrepreneur types left the Valley for trekking in Nepal, teaching
public school, starting charities — anything but launching companies.
Andreessen and Bianchini stayed.

Andreessen and Horowitz
rejiggered Loudcloud in 2002 to provide technology to help manage data
centers, and they changed its name to Opsware. Andreessen spent much of
2002 on airplanes visiting prospective customers.

"He doubled down," Bianchini said.

Andreessen called the company’s recent sale to HP "validation" of that tenaciousness.

Andreessen is on his third act with Ning, which he and Bianchini
started in 2004. He is chief technology officer and Bianchini is CEO.
They employ 34 people and expect to double or triple their workforce,
thanks to their recent venture funding, led by Allen & Co.

Andreessen
and Bianchini say Ning is different from the social-network pack
because it lets people without strong technical skills make their own.

Ning, which means "peace" in Chinese, has spawned 86,000 social
networks on topics such as TV shows and for groups like English soccer
clubs, teachers and firefighters. TuDiabetes.com, a Ning-powered site
for people with diabetes, calls itself "MySpace on insulin."

Customers
can use the service for free; Ning makes money by putting Google ads on
customers’ social networks. Or, a person or group setting up a Ning
community can pay about $20 a month to Ning if they want the social
network to be free of ads or they want to sell ads on the space
themselves.

"Both of us are inspired by the social phenomenon of
EBay," Bianchini said. "If we can give people more flexible ways to
make money, we are going to succeed."

The founders say they plan to grow over the next year by improving the service, not marketing it heavily.

It’s a strategy that evokes an earlier time, said Greg Sterling, principal analyst at Sterling Market Intelligence in Oakland.

"We’ve
come back to, ‘Let’s get eyeballs and users as rapidly as we can, and
we’ll worry about revenue later,’ " he said. "The idea is to boost
growth as rapidly as they can, gain attention and be picked up by a
bigger media company."

But listening to Bianchini and
Andreessen, it’s hard to imagine them selling Ning. To them, social
networking is a burgeoning revolution, a way for people to make their
own media.

"If you aren’t using MySpace or Facebook, maybe it
hasn’t been made easy," Andreessen said. "Ning is the potential of what
the Web can do."

Andreessen now is a leaner version of his
younger self. His shaved head gives him a stark, serious look. Last
fall, he married Laura Arrillaga, who teaches philanthropy at Stanford
University. She is the daughter of Silicon Valley real estate developer
John Arrillaga, who gave a $100-million gift to Stanford. Bianchini is
engaged to be married.

The years haven’t shaken Andreessen’s
belief that the Internet continues to change the world, being two-way
and bottom-up. And he doesn’t get people who don’t get that. The man
who helped commercialize the Web rails at industries, from music labels
to newspapers, for whining and wasting time before committing
themselves to digital strategies.

"I’m astonished by some
industries’ ability to sustain chronic pain to avoid acute pain," he
said. "You have to take drastic action."
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