Here's what you really need to know about Ning, according to Fast Company writer Adam Penenberg. Its chairman, Netscape cofounder Marc Andreessen, has an egg-shaped head. Its CEO, Gina Bianchini, who posed for Fast Company's cover in a tank top, is a "hottie." And Ning, a provider of websites for niche social networks, is poised to hit "critical mass" and "no one can stop it." Two out of those three statements were factchecked.
Ning does have people in the Valley, as Fast Company claims, "buzzing," but not because of the "viral expansion loops" which Andreessen talks up in the piece. Penenberg's thesis: Andreessen has fused viral marketing with social networks, and therefore Ning's current fast expansion rate will continue ad infinitum, or at least ad acquisition.
This is a fashionable delusion fostered by people with something to sell. Supporting Andreessen's argument are Union Square Ventures' Fred Wilson and Sequoia Capital's Roelof Botha, both of whom make the argument for compound growth. Wilson is an investor in Twitter; Botha backed YouTube. Both profit from the notion that a site's current growth rate will continue unchecked.
The reality? Growth always slows. Facebook used to crow about how its user numbers grew 3 percent a week. By the time Microsoft sank $240 million into the company, that figure had already dropped; it may now be around 1 or 2 percent. Still impressive, and still fast-growing — but any projections based on 3 percent weekly growth are now dead wrong.
With absurdities about compound growth and viral expansion stripped out, Penenberg has little to offer in Ning's defense. According to figures in the piece, Ning is making roughly $1.7 million a year in the $20-a-month subscriptions some social-network creators pay. The rest of the money they make comes from Google's AdSense ads, the familiar fallback of hopeless startups. Bianchini admits as much in a blog post. And yet she and Andreessen commanded a $214 million valuation for their creation.
What Penenberg doesn't explore: The laughable reputation of Ning's software within the Valley. The piece quotes exactly one Ning user. Had Penenberg asked around, he'd have heard from scores of disgusted social-network creators who walked away from the service after trying it out. Pointing that out would get in the way of discussing the appearance of Ning's creators. Really, Adam, I thought that was our job.
(Photo by Fast Company/Art Streiber)