12 Big Questions for Seattle Tech in 2012

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the region in 2011, with a collection of smaller deals including mobile service provider Dashwire’s acquisition by HTC.

Which early stage companies will make headlines in 2012? There are some intriguing candidates like Lockerz, the well-financed, trend-hopping social shopping and content network for teens; Decide, the comparison-shopping service backed by some pretty serious science; and Wavii, a stealthy search startup that is trying to organize and sift online content in new ways.

The company you might hear the most about, however, is Zulily, the “flash sales” outlet for moms-and-kids merchandise that has been growing at a crazy pace. The company is beating the bushes for new hires, financed by a new infusion of $43 million in venture capital.

How big is Zulily? It’s just a rumor, but from a pretty well-connected source: In this talk at a Lean Startup meetup in November, Google’s Dan Shapiro (who sold Sparkbuy earlier in the year) asked the crowd about Zulily’s current annual sales pace.

“Ballpark, anybody know what they’re doing? Just a ballpark estimate, revenue run-rate. $200 million? Last I heard, it was $700 [million],” Shapiro said, to whistles from the crowd. “So, there’s some zeros in there.”

Does Amazon own Seattle’s tech future?
Admittedly, this is not based on anything like hard financials. But if there’s one Seattle-area technology company that is currently the envy of the rest of the industry, I’d say it’s clearly Amazon.com.

Redmond has an amazingly smart group of people—and tons of them. But even the most die-hard Microsofties will tell you mind-numbing tales of bureaucratic triangulation that do not bode well for the company’s ability to deal with the huge transformations coming for its bedrock enterprise software business.

Microsoft has one bona fide consumer winner on its hands in the Xbox, a promising and much-praised platform in the new Windows Phone, and the go-to search underdog in Bing.

But that pales in comparison to the things that Amazon has pulled off in the past few years. Here’s just two examples: Commoditizing cloud computing with Amazon Web Services and mounting the first real challenge to Apple with the Kindle family of mobile consumer entertainment devices and connected services.

Sure, nobody really uses the Mechanical Turk or A9 search. And there’s nothing like watching Microsoft wake up to a challenge and sneak up from behind. But after Steve Jobs died, how many people started turning to Steve Ballmer as the next guru of the tech world? None. Jeff Bezos, on the other hand, is now the tech CEO everyone loves to worship.

At the risk of over-relying on anecdotal evidence, I’ll mention this scene: When Zynga CEO Mark Pincus came up to Seattle earlier this year to open the game-maker’s branch office, he went around the room and thanked Neil Roseman and several other former Amazonians who Zynga had hired. Then, he went into a long story about how Zynga wanted to be innovative and revolutionize game-play, the same way Amazon had revolutionized retail.

I don’t think Microsoft was mentioned once—not even as an aside, not even with Microsofties in the room as possible job candidates. Would that have happened five or 10 years ago? I doubt it.

Does Silicon Valley’s talent crunch keep driving companies up here for poaching engineers?
If you had to pick one big theme for the technology industry in Seattle this year, it would probably be the continued march of California-based companies to the rainy Northwest to establish branch offices. Google made a relatively early entry into the market, but has been joined more recently by Facebook, Zynga, Salesforce, and Jawbone. Startups with Seattle ties are even getting into the game, with examples like cloud computing company Nebula.

That puts a lot of pressure on our homegrown companies, which are the main targets of Silicon Valley talent raiders. But it’s also having a beneficial effect of bringing more diverse company cultures to the region (not to mention some more money that can be injected into the area through acquisitions).

It’s easy to imagine a few years down the road, when some of those folks working on big stuff at Google or Facebook or Zynga are looking for a new gig or thinking of starting their own company. Now, instead of … Next Page »

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  • Robyn

    There is a lot of anxiety about startup talent nationwide (the Statesman covered this issue recently). Austin startups are struggling, and travelling, to find engineers and developers as well. As in Seattle, the city relies on one university more or less (University of Texas) to get its techies. Austin has its pros and cons (there are legal advantages for an Austin startup for example) but really the talent crunch is nationwide and it simply shouldn’t be that hard to recruit. Yes, there will always be competition, but we’re reaping what we’ve sown in terms of educational investment in this country.