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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's not what you know…

The morning papers report the news that Hulu hopes to IPO this fall and raise $2 billion. (The story was first reported in the NY Times on Monday.) As with a lot of tech IPOs, the company is seeking to go public without a lot of revenues.

The company is not a tech startup in the normal sense. Its raison d’être is not its technology, but its connections, specifically its corporate founders — Disney, NBC Universal and News Corp. (who later sold a minority stake to a private equity firm.)

In other words, anyone could have done the technology: what mattered was that it had direct access to three of the four major TV networks: ABC, NBC and Fox. Hulu succeeded — in true Web 2.0 style as measured by traffic rather than profits — not because of its entrepreneurial spunk, but because of its guanxi. (This seems appropriate since supposedly the name was chosen for its Chinese rather than Hawai’ian meaning.)

Because of its connections, Hulu got favorable content deals as the anti-Apple, the distribution channel that Hollywood loves to hate. It is a lot like Orbitz, founded in 2000 by five of the biggest airlines to compete with Travelocity (a venture of the Sabre reservation service) and Expedia (founded by Microsoft).

In these sort of oligopolistic (or oligopsonistic) industries, the opportunities for success are based on industry connections — or in this case, entry by intrapraenurship rather than entrepreneurship.

Still, no alliance is forever. Some wonder if NBC content will remain on Hulu once it’s acquired by Comcast, which would like to destroy the open Internet (at least for video content) and lock everyone into their premium cable TV subscriptions.

Finally, Hulu’s business model has always been hamstrung by the competing goals of the media giants: take market share away from portals they don’t control (iTunes, YouTube) while not cannibalizing the existing TV offerings. As with newspapers, the online per-user revenues are a fraction of the 20th century traditional distribution channel.

So in the end, what will retail shareholders be getting? Is this more or less secure than the IPO of a pure startup like Tesla or Facebook or some solar panel maker? Thanks to its great connections, there is only one Hulu, but that’s no guarantee it will be able to come up with a viable revenue odel.

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