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 / Summer 2009 / Issue 55(originally published by Booz & Company)


Esther Dyson: The Thought Leader Interview

It’s a mystery, and as an investor and as someone who’d like a better-run world, I’d like to solve it. Whatever makes work unpleasant, it’s often not really the nature of the task itself; it’s the involuntariness, and the fact that you can be punished by the person running the game.

But if World of Warcraft isn’t work, it’s also not traditional consumer entertainment. People pay to use the platform. The challenge for marketers is to fit into that model. And so far they’ve been clueless.

Marketers who want users to put the marketers’ logos on their own profile pages will have to win the favor of those users. The profile owner probably won’t ask for money, and the marketer shouldn’t pay her, because it will devalue her endorsement. She might be a teenage girl with a popular site. She won’t let some dorky brand sponsor her page. She wants her friends to see the brands she likes. That Web site is like a T-shirt with a logo, which people pay to wear. People might even pay for a cool ad that they can put on their site. And if they’re in an older generation, haven’t you ever heard someone brag about being a premium frequent flyer on their favorite airline? It’s the same underlying emotion.

It will take some luck and skill to get through the transition to the next economy and keep enough people employed. Personal services will continue to grow in importance, because they are the one thing that you can’t export or shrink. Everything else will get more efficient. The economy should be spending more on health care and other personal services: not necessarily on manufacturing drugs, but on the people going around and giving little old ladies massages and laughing with children in nurseries.

“Address Questions to Yandex”

S+B: How do you square this concept with being a venture capitalist, where you have to provide returns?
DYSON: I’m not saying you can’t make money; I’m just saying business models are changing. Basically, I invest in “new stuff” that I think should exist or that I don’t think is supported well enough by other investors. I invest in things that I don’t think are being done elsewhere, and that I want to make happen, and where I think I can be helpful. I try to avoid the “30th online video-sharing Web site” startups. I usually don’t invest unless I like the people, and everything I’ve supported is a little off the beaten track.

I’m currently on the board of Yandex, which is sometimes described as the Google of Russia, though Yandex was started first.

S+B: Yandex is a Russian-language search engine?
DYSON: Yes. It was started in the late 1980s, and has something like 50 to 60 percent of the market share in search in Russian. It’s a great place to work, and the people have a good sense of humor. For example, at the bottom of every escalator in the Moscow metro is a glass booth for the escalator monitor — usually a grumpy-looking woman. There’s a sign on the booth that says, “The monitor does not give consultations.” Meaning, don’t ask her for help. It’s a Soviet-style formulation that evokes the opaque past. Yandex bought ads in about half the subway cars, saying, “The conductor does not give please address your questions to Yandex.”

Everyone got the point. As Yandex does things like that, people’s expectations of what is possible start to change, even in Russia.

S+B: You mean beyond the subway ads themselves.
DYSON: In December I took the metro in Moscow with a friend and his son. Our subway train was surreal: One wall was like an art gallery, with large, painted reproductions that you could look at from the seats on the other side. I looked up “metro train art” on the Web when I got home, and it turned out to be a single subway train running as a promotion for “the year of the child” and art education. I clicked another link or two and found a schedule for when this train runs.

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