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So What Do You Do, Guy Kawasaki, Founder, AllTop.com?

'Twitter is not something I do for fun; Twitter is what I do'

- January 7, 2009
Guy Kawasaki has been involved in the tech biz for a while: He cut his teeth as an "evangelist" for Apple's Macintosh computers in the mid-1980s, and has been involved in a wide variety of media technology companies since then. His venture capital firm, Garage Technology Ventures, has been operating for over a decade, and he currently also heads up the startup news aggregator AllTop.com. Kawasaki will be one of the keynote speakers at mediabistro.com's User-Generated Conference & Expo on February 9-10 in San Jose, Calif. Here he talks to mediabistro.com about his passion for Twitter, the fate of media tech companies in a down economy, and where AllTop fits into the media spectrum.


Name: Guy Kawasaki
Position: Managing director, Garage Technology Ventures; Founder, AllTop.com
Birthdate: August 30, 1954
Hometown: Honolulu, Hawaii
Education: Stanford for undergrad, MBA from UCLA, honorary doctorate from Babson College
Resume: His career has included stints at Apple marketing the Macintosh, separately as an Apple fellow, and as CEO of ACIUS. He founded Fog City Software, and was among the founders of Garage Technology Ventures and Alltop. He has written eight books about business and technology.
Marital status: "Married, very."
Favorite TV show: The Unit
First section of the Sunday Times: "I don't read The New York Times unless someone points me to a direct article. I barely read any newspapers."
Last book read: Divine Justice by David Baldacci
Guilty pleasure: Playing hockey

What's the thinking behind your aggregation site AllTop.com, and where do you hope it'll fit into the media landscape?
We have more than 300 topics right now and we're just barrelling along. We want to have all topics covered -- using the word "all" loosely -- I think at about 500, we'll have the world pretty much covered. We just want to provide an alternative to search engines for finding news and information.

Think of it as a digital magazine rack. If you went to a newsstand you would see racks of sports magazines, celebrity magazines, car magazines, wine magazines, and food magazines; we have our own virtual rack where we aggregate the Web sites and blogs of the top feeds for each of those topics, and we show the latest five headlines from each source. With Google, you ask Google questions like "How many people live in China," with AllTop, you ask "How do I keep on top of what is happening in China?" So it's a very different question.

What separates this from the other news aggregators out there?
We don't think that most people want to create their collection of feeds. A good analogy is: let's say you wanted to eat a hamburger. You go to Safeway and you buy the ground beef and you buy ketchup, mustard, relish, cheese, charcoal and a charcoal lighter and you take it home and have a barbecue; you mix up the stuff, light the coals, and cook it. That's one way. That's for people who want to build their custom feeds on Netvibes, Google Reader, etc. Our theory is that if you want to eat a hamburger, you just drive to In-and-Out, you stay in your car, you tell the person what you want and five minutes later you're gone. That's what we do. Arguably you could make a better burger because you've picked the special organic beef raised by Tibetan monks, but at the end of the day, if you want a hamburger in five minutes, that's what we do.

"I don't think anything can stop the expansion of user-generated content."

How do you pick the feeds?
Thank God for Twitter. The people on Twitter suggest the feeds and suggest the topics. Some of them deliver the entire collection of feeds. And we also have two and a half people working on the project on any given moment, and we just build feeds; people tell us they'd like to have, say, "adoption" at AllTop or "Vietnam" at AllTop and we can have that ready in two or three hours. For any given topic, it's probably been done somewhere before -- someone has aggregated all of the "adoption" feeds or all of the "autism" feeds, but we're trying to be a site where everything is done. We want to be like Google in the sense that if you want to find any topic aggregated you can find it at AllTop -- not only "autism" or "addiction."

With the economy constricting, what do you think is going to happen to all of the user-generated content and the companies that facilitate it?
Clearly companies that were depending on online advertising -- i.e. I'll get a lot of eyeballs and then I'll sell ads for 50 cents CPM -- that's a very challenging model these days (though it's not impossible). On the other hand, I don't think anything can stop the expansion of user-generated content, and you could make the case that all these people who are less employed or unemployed have even more time. I mean, it's a cycle, and we're in the down part of the cycle, but I don't think everyone's going to be turning in their computers and washing dishes all day.

"If it came down to bailing out General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Citibank or Lehman, versus Twitter, guess which one I would support -- and it would take a whole lot less than $700 billion to keep Twitter going."

But how about the kinds of new media companies like Twitter, which have so many users and which have become so pervasive, but still don't have much of a workable business model?
I actually did a completely unscientific and informal poll on Twitter, and much to my amazement, 30 percent of the people who responded said they would pay five bucks or more per month to use it. That's remarkable, because I would have guessed less than one percent. And even if, of that 30 percent, 27 percent of the people were lying and only three percent will pay five bucks a month -- three percent of six million is 180,000. So that would be about a million dollars a month there; that's not nothing. And if it came down to bailing out General Motors, Chrysler, Ford, Citibank or Lehman, versus Twitter, guess which one I would support -- and it would take a whole lot less than $700 billion to keep Twitter going.

I have a hard time believing that it could go away. But on the other hand, if someone had told you that Garage Technology Ventures would outlast Anderson Consulting, Enron and WebVan, you would have laughed at me 10 years ago. So you know, things can die.

The big pain in the ass for me if Twitter died would be my 29,000 followers -- if we all scattered to the wind, it'd be tough to get them all back. That's why I'm actually willing to pay $100 a month.

How could the media do a better job of using user-generated content?
They can definitely use it better to source material and to spread the story better once it's done. With Twitter, The New York Times does a good job and CNN does a good job, but the other media just aren't using it very well. Having said that, it is a little early and there are only six million people on Twitter.

But media companies should get Twitter accounts and do keyword searches. Let's take an extreme example: let's say I publish the magazine HVAC World for compressors and air conditioners. I would plug in HVAC into the Twitter stream, and every time I see that word, I would send that guy a message and say "We've got a product that can help that, or let me help you with that problem, or here's a resource." I would do that all day.

I use TweetDeck and I am parked in front of it, and I'm constantly looking for "Guy Kawasaki" and "AllTop"; and when I see it mentioned by anyone anywhere I send them a message. But I'm kind of extreme. Many people view email and Twitter as kind of an adjunct to their main function; for me, it is my main function. and everything else is adjunct. My main function, in a sense, is marketing AllTop. Twitter for me is not something I do when work is done for fun; Twitter is what I do.

There are those things like NowPublic and CNN's iReport, though, and I love those kinds of models. It's the democratization of information. Now you don't even have to own a blog or Web site or pagemaker. Now you can be a "journalist." It's got some drawbacks, but a lot of highly prestigious organizations got the George W. Bush military record wrong too. So it's not just the shmoes that have the monopoly on poor reporting.


David Hirschman is editor of mediabistro.com's Daily Media Newsfeed.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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