Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Is a Shorter Web Address Worth Big Money? bit.ly Raises $2 Million

bitly_puffersHere’s another Web 2.0 riddle that seems particularly hard to solve post-Lehman: What’s the value of a service that takes a long Web address and makes it shorter?

One answer: Several million dollars.

Oh, and did I mention there’s no business model attached to said Web service?

Still with me?

OK. Here are the details: Betaworks, the incubator/start-up platform best known for selling Twitter a search engine for $15 million last year, is taking in-house project bit.ly and spinning it out as a separate company. A group of new investors, led by O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, has poured about $2 million into the company, which implies a valuation in the midseven figure range.

Other investors include Howard Lindzon’s Social Leverage group, Jeff Clavier’s SoftTech VC, and uber-angel Ron Conway. O’Reilly’s Bryce Roberts will join the board of the four-man company.

bit.ly is one of roughly a gazillion url-shorteners, all of which do the same thing. They take an unwieldy Web address like, say, this one: “http://mediamemo.allthingsd.com/20090330/huffington-post-pays-for-content-after-all-via-175-million-investigative-fund/” and turn it into something concise like this: “http://bit.ly/14WdlB.”

If you spend much time on Facebook, Twitter or any other Web service where brevity is useful, you’ve encountered a shortened URL, and you’re likely seeing more and more of them all the time. The bit.ly guys say people clicked on 20 million of their shortened Web addresses last week, and that the number is increasing by about 10 percent a week.

Great. So where’s the money? Many of bit.ly’s competitors, like the aptly named tinyurl.com, generate modest revenue by running Google (GOOG) ads against the many eyeballs that come to the site to use the service. But bit.ly won’t sell ads, and it plans on distinguishing itself by tracking all the clicks and streams that come through the service and using the data to provide interesting analytics and insights into who’s looking at what on the Web, in real time.

The logic: If you’re impressed with the possibilities of Twitter’s real-time search capabilities (see above), you’ll love bit.ly.

Great. So where’s the money? bit.ly is free to users, and the company says it doesn’t plan on selling its analytics or other tools to publishers. Team bit.ly says revenue will come sometime down the road, from something else–when they figure out what that is.

That kind of shrugging was par for the course during Boom 2.0 days. But in the dark days of last fall, even the sunniest Web optimists, including Betaworks founder John Borthwick himself, were telling start-ups that they had to face reality and start making money.

So either things have gotten much better than we realized or the bit.ly investors think it’s still worth betting on fast-growing, revenue-free start-ups. It’d be nice if both things are true.


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— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”