Fred Wilson, Todd Dagres, and More Cheer NY’s Growth in the VC Game

2/2/12Follow @jpruth

Much like the New York Giants charging onto the football field, companies such as bitly, BarkBox, and Gilt Groupe—along with their backers—have upped the caliber of innovation expected from startups in New York. In response to this upswell of activity, Xconomy brought some 250 members of the local investor and entrepreneurial community together Wednesday to catch a glimpse of the city’s potential as a venture hub. (And to debate the merits of the Giants vs. the Patriots.)

Fred Wilson, managing partner of Union Square Ventures, and Todd Dagres, general partner and founder of Spark Capital, discussed the role media hype plays with some startups and the rise of social media, during a keynote chat moderated by David Rosenblatt, CEO of 1stdibs.

Admittedly, the media is notorious for picking its darlings when discussing innovation while barely mentioning some growing companies. Though Instagram, for example, makes headlines when it lands funding, Wilson said, Union Square Ventures has companies in its portfolio quickly building their businesses under the radar. “They don’t get caught up in a bunch of nonsense,” he said. “We have companies like Indeed.com and Return Path that will be public companies in three or four years—maybe less.” The management teams at those companies, Wilson said, are more focused on developing their products than building their media following.

Dagres said that some companies simply do not talk up their plans. He compared Twitter, a usual suspect on many blogs and news sites, with Tumblr, which until recently was not as vocal. “Tumblr couldn’t get arrested even though it was growing like crazy and was very substantial,” he said. “You didn’t hear anything about it. Now it’s starting to catch on.”

New York’s Tumblr could be on to something by shrugging at hype in order to endure in the social media arena, Wilson said. He noted that early players such GeoCities gave way to MySpace, Facebook, and now Foursquare and Pinterest. “People are figuring out how to make these services more useful and how to also make them businesses,” he said.

The trouble with GeoCities, Wilson said, was in spite of the high hit counts on those websites the display ad business did not pick up. “It was hard to make money back then even though you had gazillions of page views,” he said. More recent players in the social arena, Wilson said, have figured out the secret of generating revenue in ways that make sense to marketers.

It all comes down to finding revenue sources from novel ideas—a challenge the other presenters at the Venture Emergence Forum, held at the Alexandria Center for Life Science, hope to master. BarkBox, for example, delivers specially chosen pet products to dog owners. The audience also listened with interest to staretup tales from HackNY, Gilt Groupe, Gotham Greens, and Simulmedia.

Barry Silbert, founder and CEO of SecondMarket, spoke in a keynote chat with Michael Greeley, general partner of Flybridge Capital Partners about the impact of Facebook’s IPO—not only on SecondMarket, but on tech investing as a whole.

Meanwhile, Sapan Shah, CEO of biopharmaceutical company ARMGO Pharma, talked up his desire to reignite interest in biotech, even as venture capital support for the sector shrivels. “There are high barriers to entry for pharmaceutical products, so if you are successful and pick the right bets with patent protection, there’s a great reward at the end of the day,” he said.

For some tech companies though, finding rewards requires a deep look within. Peter Stern, CEO of bitly, joined Eric Wiesen, general partner with RRE Ventures, to discuss the evolution of bitly from a tool to chop down URLs for tweets to a data savvy company that helps publishers monitor their reputations.

“Bitly launched as part of another product,” Wiesen said. “As the need for compact content forms became severe, there was a business to be built.” He said RRE Ventures invested in bitly, which was incubated within technology product studio Betaworks, as it gathered more and more data about shared online activities. That data revealed who was doing what on the Web and with whom, he said. But the information was little more than a science project at first.

RRE Ventures drafted Stern last May to serve as bitly’s CEO and to focus on creating products. Stern described bitly as a phenomenon but not a company. “There wasn’t a business model, not even on a napkin,” he said. Under his leadership, bitly started to process its data to show content publishers and brands how information is being shared and who cares about their messages. Stern said he drew some inspiration for bitly’s new path from Nasdaq, which sells market data. “A lot of their money comes from selling data and selling derivatives on that data,” he said. “I see bitly as the same thing.” Stern believes he can make money by selling products based on the flow of information that people share on the Web.

The event also had its edgy moments of contention. Bob Buderi, CEO and founder of Xconomy, brazenly emceed Wednesday’s forum while sporting a Tom Brady New England Patriots jersey and asked New York to share Super Bowl championships with Boston every five years.

Eli Manning and the New York Giants will respond on Sunday on the field.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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