If you thought a new company and a new baby would keep me from taking off on wild international reporting trips you were half wrong.
No sooner did PandoMonthly end than did I hop on a plane to Russia. But as reporting locations go, Russia is a pretty sane one. It’s one of the only big emerging countries I did not hit during my 40-week journey through the emerging world, finding great entrepreneurs for my last book.
Several years ago when I began that project, many investors trying to do business in Russia at the time told me the country wasn’t quite there yet. Now with the IPOs of Mail.ru, Yandex, and growth of commerce giant OZON, that’s beginning to change. In the last few months Russia passed Germany as the largest Web audience in Europe, and broadband penetration is out of the single digits and into the low doubles.
Building a big Internet company from scratch is still an insanely risky proposition in Russia, and private equity people tell us there are simply far better ways to make money off of Russia growth and ascendance into modernity. But the stage is certainly set for the already large companies like Yandex and Ozon to become even bigger.
As these companies grow, they are making a land grab beyond search, in the case of Yandex, and beyond eTailing, in the case of Ozon, to include online payments, online travel, online music, and all sorts of verticals that standalone Web companies have dominated in the West. What’s emerging is a Web scene reminiscent of China: A place where local companies — not Yahoo, Google or Facebook — dominate. Understanding these companies is key to understanding the Russian Web scene, much like understanding Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, and Sina is to understanding China.
The Times (London)’s Murad Ahmed and I have been granted exclusive interviews with leaders of Ozon and Yandex and some smaller Internet up-and-comers in the hope that the UK and US readers might understand them more. The occasion is just before Ozon reports its annual numbers — even though as a private company it isn’t bound to. More on that later.
Last night, we had a very Russian meal of heavy cream, butter, fish, and vodka to lay the ground rules of the trip* and get to know one another. It ended with a stroll through the snowy Red Square at night and a talk about why Ahmed and I left our comparatively warm countries to come explore.
* Although Ozon invited us to Russia, PandoDaily paid 100% of Sarah’s traveling expenses, per our ethics policy. Although Sarah frequently does paid-speaking gigs, PandoDaily staff does not accept paid-for reporting trips under any circumstances.