Friday, April 24, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 10

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The business development guy from CNET beat around the bush for a while, but it quickly became clear that he was thinking acquisition. And that suited me fine. I'd been a fan of CNET's tech reviews and radio efforts, plus they owned Ziff-Davis, which had hosted the Macintosh support forums on Compuserve I helped operate back in the 1980's. But the important thing was that CNET had a reputation for offering dependable, savvy information to a discerning audience. This was the sort of company that would know better than to dumb down Chowhound; to do anything that might repel our smart users and irreversibly dilute our data.

To be sure, CNET knew nothing about food. This fact made the subsequent announcement of our acquisition quite surprising to many parties. I myself never saw a disjoint. Data is data, opinions are opinions, and networked communities are networked communities. The actual subject is the least important element. I feel similarly perplexed when people are surprised that I'm able to write about non-food topics; as if they expected me to turn completely inarticulate and moronic when it comes to subjects non-lasagna-related.

I wasn't looking for a company with deep experience in Haianese chicken rice and marrons glac├ęs. Food's just a topic; Chowhound's prospective overlords certainly didn't need to walk around in aprons all day. In fact, food expertise would have been a strike against them. Chowhound's perspective was maverick and iconoclastic; allowing it to be subverted by old school food authorities would have been disastrous (would you want to see McSweeney's bought out by Readers Digest?). What was important was a familiarity with savvy audiences and with online culture. CNET had been deeply into both for years...but with fewer calories.

CNET hoped to add a "lifestyles" division to build out the Web 2.0-ish momentum of some of their previously acquired properties. It made sense. I was invited to San Francisco to discuss, and before I knew it, I found myself on an airplane headed west.

I was met by the business development guy I'd spoken to on the phone, who I'll call Clay. You probably have run into someone like Clay; the sort of fellow with vast confidence in his own charm. He locks eye contact meaningfully, modulates his voice with layers of gooey honey, and carefully apes your body english. Most of all, he diligently affirms everything you say. No matter what I'd ask, he'd lock eyes with me, let me feel his love, part his tense mouth into a mirror-honed smile, and cry "Yes!!! Of COURSE!". To test him, I'd ask questions where I knew the answer was a clear "no". "Clay, would I be able to bring my pet Komodo dragon with me into the office?" "Jim, YES!!! Of COURSE!"

At the end of the day - any day at all - Clay will have uttered "at the end of the day" several dozen times. He spoke entirely in corporate cliches (I learned not to grimace), and had trouble following complex thoughts (I learned to speak in bullet points). But this is what a bizdev guy is: shallow, slippery, and full of himself. He's a dealmaker. And since he was the force within CNET advocating for Chowhound's acquisition, he was my dealmaker!

After lots of time spent with Clay, I was taken around to meet the folks I'd actually be working with. First there was Martin Green, a vice president with great gentility and a nimble mind. He described his vision for the lifestyle division, which I found highly creative and very smart. And I told him so...causing eyes to narrow cynically. I was, apparently, "kissing his ass".

Martin was terrific, as were most of the other potential future coworkers. I did meet Neil Ashe (currently the CEO, back then the #2) briefly. He has the pudgy cheeks of a bashful little boy but the manner of a swaggering corporate cowboy. Six months later, as I attended to personal business in front of a CNET urinal, Ashe stepped in beside me and actually struck a Captain Morgan pose; an image I'll never manage to expunge (I used only stalls for the remainder of my tenure). Nothing substantive was discussed with Ashe, and I was pulled hastily out of his office after a very short time. I got the impression the guy was considered too ornery to expose to an acquisition prospect during the delicate buttering-up process.

Indeed, I did have one interesting moment with him. I mentioned that I had a fresh idea in the health field that would instantly attract a demographic advertisers would drool over. His reaction almost made me erupt in guffaws. Grinning with infinite condescension, he wagged his head one single time, a quick jerk from left to right: "no". As if to say, no, chowhound, you really kinda don't. Ha ha, listen to our little Betty Crocker with his ADORABLE big plans! I LOVE this guy! Now off you go! Woops, don't forget your napkin! Buh-bye, now!

(To this day, no one's thought of my idea. It would be enormous; like Chowhound, it's something the Web was born to provide, and it's almost unbelievable to me that it remains unconceived. I didn't have to offer it to CNET, and, in retrospect, it's just as well they spurned it.)

Gratuitous condescension was certainly not a deal-killer. In fact, I found his bluntness refreshing. I fully understood that once Chowhound was sold, I'd have limited say in its operation - though Clay did his best to paint a future for me as a respected and autonomous player within the company. That's his job! I smiled and expressed polite, if slightly detached, pleasure in the thought of my destiny as a corporate middle manager.

I also met one Max Mead, a finance wiz who worked with Clay. Max's non-stop business patter is incomprehensible to mere mortals. Like the Hybrid character in Battlestar Galactica, the brilliance of what he's saying is palpable, but one can never quite wrap one's mind around it. Max didn't just do finance for CNET, he lived it and breathed it. He loved the stuff - and his earnest passion for his job made me love Max. I later found out that, while Clay would never admit it, Max was the guy who had first brought Chowhound to his attention. If there's a hero in this saga, let it be Max.

Having strewn the narrative with multiple spoilers, I'll move next time to the utterly anticlimactic Offer scene, and then we'll talk about the soul-sucking process known as "due diligence", which is only slightly less fun than jailhouse rape.

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