Silos, Networks, and Value

I’ve been hearing Robert Scoble yak for months, nay, years, about the “walled garden” metaphor in social networking. This is where a vendor, say, Facebook, locks in users by restricting their ability to move their social graph to other, possibly competing services.

It appears that the trend is slowly moving in the direction of portability, which is a win for average Janes and Joes, not to mention the Scobles and Calacanises of the world who have about 1.0*10^12 friends apiece and who are singularly responsible for recent Twitter downtime, among other horrible crimes.
There’s a larger issue, which is almost the reverse of the walled garden issue, and that is, how valuable are silo networks in the first place? The item that got me thinking was a post by Ken Ross on the Seattle Tech Startups list about his new venture called ExpertCEO:

We’re writing to invite CEO’s, COO’s and Presidents to join ExpertCEO, a private on-line community where senior executives can confidentially exchange ideas with peers, locate trusted resources, ask questions of experts across a range of disciplines, and quickly solve real-world business problems. The site combines social networking technology with concepts proven by CEO membership organizations like Vistage and YPO

I was immediately brought back to 1992, when I was the store manager for a Mailboxes, Etc. franchise, and a guy who had a mailbox there invited me to join a similar organization. His gig was to go around to different cities, set up an irresistable buzz among the wanna-be CEOs, collect his membership dues, then hand over the managerial reins to some clueless schlub and go on to the next town.

The thing was, I was 20 years old at the time and had no executive experience of any sort. I was a struggling student who happened, by dint of responsible behavior, to land this slightly less crappy job than most of the other students. But when he invited me to join his super-CEO group, I was thinking something along the lines of “I wouldn’t want to join any organization that would want to have me as a member.” I went to one introductory meeting and it was a roomful of mostly clueless, mostly preening young guys who had big ambition but not much in the way of real mentoring, or anyone they could ask to see “is this thing really worth my time?”

I’ve been fortunate since to have a couple older mentors who have taught me a lot – often through osmosis – and so now, when I see the ExpertCEO pitch, I immediately reject it. But let’s assume for the moment that this guy, Ken Ross, is a decent guy who really thinks that this idea has legs. He might be thinking along the lines of the job-hunting site for “people making over 100K a year”,

Does it have legs? Do “communities of interest” have a place?

I get a lot of value out of my self-selected network(s): Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. I also get a lot of value out of special-interest groups I belong to (formally or informally), such as the Seattle Tech Startups group itself. What’s worth paying for, and what’s not? Is Twitter worth paying for? Is Biznik? Is ExpertCEO?

Recently on STS there was a long series of discussions about whether it was useful for startup founders to subscribe (pay for) membership in the various Angel and VC funding organizations, like NWEN, Alliance of Angels, Keiretsu, etc. There were strong sentiments on both sides of that argument.

What do you think?


4 Responses to “Silos, Networks, and Value”

  1. 1 Adam May 26, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Any social network getting started in May 2008 – much less a paid, elitism based social network – is going to have an uphill climb.

    A corollary to the Groucho quote might be that elitist based organizations wouldn’t want anyone who would want to be a member. The sociology/psychology of it is fascinating, people are clearly wet wired to shun some status symbols while they seek others.

    TheFunded is a bit of an anomaly… but they’ve done a good job making it about learning about VC ratings and discussion and not about status in any way.

    ExpertCEO is especially classy – they last spammed STS less than two weeks ago.

  2. 2 Marina Martin May 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm

    I would pay serious money for Twitter. I’d pay money for the *old*, exclusive-to-other-verified-college-students Facebook, but these days they almost have to pay me to login. I could see why someone would pay for LinkedIn, but I wouldn’t ever go beyond the free level myself.

    I see ExpertCEO as being a legal nightmare. I might chat about some business ideas casually with fellow STS members, but that’s a spoken conversation and not forever logged for Google. Their lack of a basic understanding of online marketing makes me bet their security sucks, too.

    If I were to pick out the difference, I’d pay for an organized means of getting to know people I already know better or in a more organized way (old Facebook, Highrise), and to potentially meet other people in their circles. (Yes, LinkedIn does this, but there isn’t enough interaction to be worth $ to me.) I’d pay to join a community based on a particular hobby (filmmaking). But “CEO” is too broad, and the discussions likely too important, to get me to enter the walled garden. (How do I know the CEOs don’t suck? Or that they’re real CEOs at all?)

  3. 3 Damon May 27, 2008 at 7:05 am

    ExpertCEO may do very well. I think there is tremendous opportunity for specialized social networks. Think, “social network X, for people that are better than the people on Facebook!” Who doesn’t want to be better than the people on Facebook; that’s a lot of people I’m better than.

    However, ExpertCEO exhibits a pretty fatal flaw: its by-design lack of diversity. If any group needs to expose itself to more diversity, it’s leaders. I wonder what would have happened if the CEO of Bear Sterns had asked the mail room clerk if it was a good idea to purchase an asset that you had no reasonable idea as to its value? Bank CEOs didn’t think there was a problem.

    Many (most?) of the major screw ups at the CEO level result from a lack of diversity, not CEOs not having access to other CEOs. Technology enables leaders to expose themselves to lots of diversity. ExpertCEO is a step backward.

    However, it could still do very well. Everyone likes to feel special.

  4. 4 Ken Ross May 27, 2008 at 10:44 am

    I appreciate the comments and feedback on this post, and I want to try to briefly give you my perspective as the Founder of ExpertCEO.

    First, the goal of ExpertCEO is to create a private community where CEO’s can ask questions and get answers from others who have experienced the same types of issues and problems. As a private community, we qualify the members to insure they’re CEO’s (COO’s, etc.). At ExpertCEO, as opposed to a broad network like LinkedIn, you can be confident that the responders have some qualifications to answer your questions. There is a huge demand for this type of service and there are many organizations that cater to CEO’s by offering monthly in-person meetings for large fees ranging upwards of $12,000 per year. We want to provide some (but not all) of the benefits of these organizations in a economical and web-based environment.

    A second goal of ExpertCEO is to utilize the “Wisdom of the Crowds”. Sure, every CEO has his or her network – perhaps 10 or 20 people, but we feel that if a question is addressed to, perhaps 1,000 individuals, a number of people in this “crowd” will have unique and relevant answers for the questioner that wouldn’t normally come from his or her close circle.

    We offer other capabilities such as our “Ask the Expert” feature where we have experts (legal, M&A, etc.) that you can query and get useful information. We also have a Resource Center where product and service providers can list their companies, and our members can provide comments on them to add credibility.

    As to confidentially and security, that is our highest priority. When creating or participating in a discussion, you can either sign “by name”, “generic” (i.e. a venture backed software company) or completely anonymous.

    ExpertCEO was launched in mid April, so the site is evolving as our membership grows. We think that it will provide an great complement to the broad based sites like LinkedIn as well as to the various “in person” CEO organizations that exist today.

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