Monday, February 16, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 8

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Just because people keep proposing really bad solutions doesn't mean there isn't a problem!

What the woozy mogul and the slimy schemer were both saying, in their respective ways, could not be disregarded. To attract corporate interest, Chowhound needed to be more inviting to the corporate eye. Indeed, this was why we'd had so few previous biz nibbles. It was surprisingly hard for businesspeople to fully grasp the value of Chowhound's data, its unique audience, or its brand as-is. Our vibe of earnestness and authenticity, which had powerfully attracted a huge crowd of independent thinkers, was, like some sci-fi space shield, equally effective at repelling corporate types. But wasn't that the whole idea?

Say you've created an operation whose entire reason for existence, whose very aesthetic, was anti-corporate (or, at least, anti-the-usual-soulless-corporate). Everything about the operation is so unwavering in that perspective that no one - not even the most vicious hater - could ever suspect it to be a mere pose. And say a huge crowd had been attracted, eager to join in communal backlash against plastic, buzzy, spiritually empty consumer products. You've created a red pill: an antidote to corporate marketing hypnosis, encouraging consumers to shake off the trance. To put down the Kool-Aid and make free choices. To actively seek out unsung treasure rather than walk the well-worn path of passive capitulation to the shiny seductions of the pandemic mediocrity.

Hey, good job! this point, could you possibly be so daft as to imagine that this cockamamie, kooky, flimsy-seeming and vaguely threatening movement you've created with your co-freaks - with its homegrown look and rant-ish anti-corporate message - is going to appeal to the very suits you revile? Are you, perhaps, smoking crack?

Well, Craigslist, with its similar vibe, managed it. But we didn't quite have Craig's numbers or brand recognition. Beyond a certain point, the execs bring along their own crack pipes.

Also, Craig's "play" was clear as a bell: a classified ad model ported online. Chowhound's play was more convoluted: trading chow tips...but wait, really good chow tips...but wait, no, really intrepid, iconoclastic, cutting edge chow tips. Ferreting out, evangelizing, and cataloging unsung treasure. It takes some mental agility to fully grok, especially for those parties who obliviously scarf drek from Blimpies. And, remember, their brother suits had perpetrated Blimpies culture in the first place, and deemed the lock-stepped hypnotic consumer trance not an abomination but a utopia. Hmm...impasse!

While the present day feels like a new corporate era - one where a CFO might play bass in a punk band and vote Democrat, and the encubicled set deems themselves cool and creative - make no mistake about it: corporate attitude remains 1956ishly square. Deep-down, these guys are all still crewcuts-and-tie-clips.

Of course, it would be wrong to blame the corporate world for missing our value. After all, we were the ones who'd installed the force field. Ways could be found to polish up our look and scale up our traffic without seeing Chowhound dilute into a lowest-common-denominator Olive-Garden-hugging, focus-group fellating resource. But there was a Catch 22: such changes would require corporate support, but corporate support would evade us so long as we remained all vibey/hippy/wavy/gravy. And there was also Catch 22a: a makeover sponsored by unhip parties, even with the best of intentions, would destroy the vibe.

While "vibe" is the term I've been using here, the dynamic is actually quite explainable in MBA-speak. Chowhound has two unusual points of value: 1. the premium quality of its data, and 2. its tightly-focused audience, which is uniquely discriminating and knowledgable. The data and the audience, the audience and the data, are like chicken and egg. Dilution of one would result in immediate dilution of the other, and entropy can never be reversed. Chowhound required sensitive management by people with a deep affinity for subtle cultural issues of tone and values, and those factors couldn't be faked, because our audience's most inherent quality was its ability to sniff inauthenticity.

That's not so hard to understand, is it? Well, Vrtha and Mogul didn't really get it. Why? Because, like all corporate honchos, they're geniuses, smug with their proven abilities to build and manage big things, all molecule-thin. They deemed Chowhound just another wafer-thin branded widget, and wouldn't stop flexing their gigantic cerebral lobes long enough to grok its unique and fragile qualities. They were gut-ignorant there, and ignorance is a dark, scary place. What's more, truly understanding us would mean calling deeply into question some bedrock assumptions, and, obviously, these were not red pill people.

So whom would I paddle toward, if Chowhound was, essentially, a three dimensional pencil pushing up through the ground of two-dimensional corporate Flatland, confusing to the inhabitants and ill-suited to their tools and mechanisms? If we were going to be acquired, I needed to find a company that not only appreciated and valued Chowhound's unique attributes, but whose very operation hinged on making hay with premium quality information, opinions, and audiences. Mere statement of appreciation wasn't worth much (the likes of Vrtha and Mogul could spit effusive praise on cue). But a company whose bread and butter involved painstakingly high-quality content might remain sensitive to Chowhound's unique and fragile dynamic. They wouldn't alter the recipe as heedlessly as Mogul and Vrtha had proposed.

And, indeed, the pig needed serious lipstick. The best, biggest, broadest, deepest, savviest trove of food news and tips ever compiled in any media, and its loyal national following, meant nothing to the business world so long as there was no cleanly definable "there" there. We'd likely miss out on this bubble, as we'd missed the previous one, if we didn't repackage, slickly framing Chowhound's cultural aspects. We needed to telegraph that we were "Anti-Corporate" - with quotation marks, as a winking corporate tactic - rather than remain flatly anti-corporate, the term simmering in insolent unquoted lowercase. Y'know, Indie Rock. Betty Crocker Homestyle. Sanctioned edginess.

Even if I were at the peak of my energy, the task would have held little appeal for me. But I hung on. And I did take a deep breath and rang one corporate doorbell, making a cold call overture to the good folks in charge of a large east coast media conglomerate.

Read the next installment (#9)

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