Benjamin F. Kuo, the 32-year-old editor and publisher of the SoCalTech newsletter, has become a leading voice of Southern California’s technology community. The idea sprang out of a frantic job search in 1998 for a tech job nearer to his Thousand Oaks home. The site was at first just a personal homepage where Kuo gathered information about local companies and posted his resume. Since then, SoCalTech News has morphed into a daily newsletter and Web site with 4,700 subscribers and advertising revenue. A paid-subscription version that launched earlier this year includes an extensive venture capital database that focuses on Southern California. For Kuo, it’s just a hobby. His real job is as a marketing manager with Troika Networks Inc., a data storage software company in Westlake Village. It was an opportunity he found through his own Web site.
Question: What current trends do you notice among Southern California tech companies?
The success of Internet companies, despite the bust. The companies that have survived have become very profitable. BizRate/ShopZilla, Lowermybills.com, FastClick, eHarmony all of these companies are based here, have become successful and don’t really need capital anymore.
Q: What about technology trends?
There are a bunch of companies taking open-source software projects and making them for-profit ventures. Open source is essentially free software, so the cost of ownership is drastically reduced. They no longer have to pay the software package licensing fee and maintenance fees of their old system and companies like Versora and others are taking the open-source software, enhancing it, packaging it, and customizing it. It’s a very promising area GlueCode, based in El Segundo, was an open-source
company just bought by IBM.
Q: What about the Internet companies?
A big trend now is in “location-based services.” That’s creating content and services around cell phones and mobile devices. A typical example of a service would be if you turn on your cell phone and it tells you the six closest restaurants to where you are. Companies like Amp’d Mobile are entering this space with an interesting mix of location-based services and entertainment media and entertainment companies getting their content onto cell phones.
Q: With ValueClick and Yahoo Search Marketing in our back yard, where is Internet advertising headed in L.A.?
There are a bunch of local companies looking to provide more localized services again, it’s more location-based services, but the idea is to actually be able to find a dentist in your neighborhood. Companies like Reach Local and Insider Pages. The founders of NetZero have started a local search company called Jambo. Local search is the next frontier. Of course, that changes every four or five months.
Q: What made you start SoCalTech.com?
In 1998, I was working in Pasadena and living in Thousand Oaks doing software engineering. I was doing the commute about an hour and a half each way and my wife was expecting our first child. I realized the commute wasn’t going to work anymore. So I started looking around and came up with a list of tech companies along the 101 tech corridor and just put it up on my personal home page. I started getting hits people saying, “you forgot this company,” or “that company’s no longer around, it’s become this company.” My page started coming up in random Internet searches, and I got booted from my ISP (Internet Service Provider). They said there was way too much traffic going to my Web site. That’s when I went out and found a domain name, SoCalTech, and started putting things there.
Q: Why was the Web site successful enough to become a newsletter?
During the late ’90s tech-boom, L.A. was considered a technology backwoods. When people thought of L.A., they thought Hollywood, but when you said technology, they would automatically think Silicon Valley. But L.A. really does have a lot of technology. Even as far back as the ’70s and ’80s, it’s always had defense companies and component makers.
Q: So people just started e-mailing you, helping you with your job search?
As a side effect of the list, people would send me updates on any of the companies. So I started sending out updates. It started as a list of about 15 people and it just grew.
Q: Are there ever any conflicts with the newsletter and your day job?
I’ve been doing this newsletter since I started here, and they know about it because that’s how I found them in the first place. I keep the two totally separate. The only thing that bothers them sometimes is when vendors come in and they all know me but don’t know the other executives.
Q: But you need to be careful.
I’m careful to be impartial. People consider me a journalist; I’m definitely pitched by PR-folk all the time. But I don’t publish everything I hear. I want to make sure it checks out. I know a lot of the people involved, and I tend to be aware of what’s going on before it’s published by anybody.
Q: Describe your venture database.
It’s a database of all the companies in Southern California who have been venture funded it has a profile of the company, names of executives, all the funding rounds that we know of and the investors. It’s also a social networking-type of application: you can click on a company and see all the investors that have invested in that company, plus all of the companies those firms have invested in. So you can see that certain venture firms are only interested in certain types of companies, and you can see that certain venture firms will invest with other venture firms. For an entrepreneur, it’s really useful to know that these three or four guys tend to invest with people they know. That can help if you’re looking to raise additional funds.
Q: People get thousands of e-mails per day. How do you make yours relevant?
One of the things the site has become is a gathering place for the tech community. L.A. is so spread out that if you want to go to a networking event in Irvine, you have to plan half your day around it. In the Bay Area, you would run into people in the coffee shop or picking up your kids from school here in L.A. there’s been a lack of a way to get an idea of what’s going on and who’s doing what.
Q: What is your ultimate goal?
The entrepreneurs tend to be the guys in the trenches. The people that come up with ideas are your engineers and your computer scientists working on products. They don’t know the business part of it. They don’t know that there’s an accountant who specializes in high tech. There’s an interesting gap there. The Tech Coast Angels and the Pasadena Angels do a good job of connecting people and helping those people out. But you’ll still meet an entrepreneur and hear them say, “I’ve got to go up to San Jose to meet with some venture capitalists.” Well, no you don’t. L.A.’s got a wealth of very successful venture capitalists. There’s a whole infrastructure and people just don’t realize it. That’s what I try to bridge.
Q: How is the paid subscription service doing?
The free newsletter has 4,700 subscribers, mostly in Southern California, but a significant number in San Jose. I have readers in Japan and Germany, too. They just want to tap into what’s going on here. The newsletter started taking ads as it gained momentum. The advertising has just been a way to keep the newsletter going. From the beginning, it wasn’t meant to be a profit center just to pay for the costs of keeping up the site.
Q: What do you see on the horizon for technology in L.A.?
The interesting thing is that we seem to be coming back to content. During the boom, everybody was investing in Internet content and e-commerce. Then everybody fled and ignored it for a few years because they got bitten so badly. Now it seems we’re coming back around to online content, mobile content, mobile games. That’s what we’re seeing with content companies being bought by big media companies or other wireless companies. I think they realized there were actually some people making
money at it.
Benjamin F. Kuo
Editor and Publisher
1972, Salt Lake City
B.S., electrical engineering, University of Southern California
Career Turning Point:
The decision to shorten his commute, which led to gathering information about nearby tech companies on his homepage
Most Admired People:
Leonardo da Vinci, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson
Growing rare/exotic fruit, photography, hiking