From time to time we see a company come in to pitch RRE that pitches us on a business that is fundamentally dependent on another (typically larger) business. An example of this would be Xobni, the (very useful) inbox extension for Microsoft Outlook. But it’s not always a big company (think Summize, the search company recently acquired by Twitter). We sometimes call these companies “barnacles” because of the way these companies latch onto a larger host and add incremental value to users of the host company’s products. This is becoming more and more common as companies either actively promote an application infrastructure built on top of the core platform (Salesforce.com, iPhone App Store, Facebook Platform) or as companies simply open up API access to allow other applications to take advantage of functionality or data.
There are pluses and minuses to these types of businesses, and like everything we see, the ultimate decision of whether or not it’s a business we’ll want to fund comes down to the strength of the people and how big a problem their product purports to solve. But barnacle businesses have some specific characteristics to them that are distinctive.
GOOD: Barnacle companies don’t have to build an ecosystem of interest to support their products. Xobni, to continue our example (and note that we are not investors in Xobni) doesn’t have to convince millions of users to use Outlook – Microsoft has already done that. They just need to convince existing Outlook users to install their product to enhance productivity. Now that’s not the easiest sell in the world, especially given the IT attitudes present in many large Microsoft environments, but it’s a lot easier than trying to build the ecosystem from scratch.
BAD: The flip side to the above, of course, is the vulnerability barnacle companies have to host companies. When your business is entirely dependent on another company, that company has substantial power over you. That can come in the form of a decision to duplicate your functionality, at which point you rely on any IP you might have or the stickiness of your product, or to modify their product (or API) to block you. If the host company decides to prohibit one of these products from attachment, the startup can find itself adrift at sea.
GOOD: There is no more obvious acquirer for a barnacle company than the host.
BAD: There may be no other acquirer for a barnacle company than the host, so be very careful to establish a good relationship.
In an era where a greater and greater number of ecosystems are being built (Microsoft, Facebook, Salesforce, etc…) it is becoming increasingly feasible to build a business that is a barnacle, but these come with an unusual set of challenges, and require some careful maneuvering, particularly around fundraising and exit.