Monday, May 11, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 11

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Throughout my visit to CNET headquarters, Clay kept painting a picture of how CNET was going to make me a star. All the mighty resources of the corporation would be put behind the pumping of my "personal brand" in addition to the Chowhound brand.

This is apparently a line that works well with egotistical founders: not only will you not be squeezed out of control of your baby, you will be supercharged; made so much more; your massive awesomeness swollen to a girth you could scarcely imagine!

Maybe it's because I was in my 40's, and had some life experience. Or maybe it was because I've always been more driven by job-well-done satisfaction than by ego gratification. Or maybe it's because Clay's greasy stroking was so laughably transparent to me. But whatever the reason, I listened placidly, clearly recognizing every word to be complete bullshit. That's not how acquisition works, not how it should work, and certainly not how this one would work. This process would involve weaning me, and I was more than ready to be weaned.

My weaning would be gradual, however. CNET's model seemed to be for founders to hang around for a while after acquisition. (One exception: founder John Nestoriak, who'd been quickly disappeared without a trace. Hours of ardent Googling couldn't uncover his whereabouts, and my request to speak with him was refused. Instead, I was told how gravely CNET regretted the fiasco that had ensued when his online community was overhauled suddenly and insensitively, alienating loyal regulars. It was patiently explained to me all that had been learned in the process, which I was assured would never be repeated.)

At minimum, I'd be expected to work for the company for one year. No sweat; after all, it would be a relief to have lots of smart people and rich resources to draw from, rather than struggling to devise cheap, out-of-box solutions to deflect every obstacle. A year seemed easy, and two or three possible. But I had no illusions about continuing to call the shots, much less having my personal awesomeness pumped skyward.

When he wasn't flattering me or flatly lying to me, Clay would offer up his weighty thoughts on food and food media. My cuticles grew bloody as I dug thumbnails through flesh, trying to stave off winces and giggles. Acquisition would be a painful process, and painful processes inevitably involve tedious small talk with one's captors. Wherever wisdom teeth are pulled or fender damage is assessed, the lords of those processes - their sensibilities evolved in an ecosystem free of natural adversaries - can be counted upon to freely spew on current events, politics, or, in my case, food. Stuck, helpless, in Clay's office, without benefit of anesthetic, I nodded amiably while he shared his incoherent ideas.

But Clay's role was dealmaker, so it was only a matter of time before we finally began discussing an actual deal. A couple of hours before my plane was to take off, we sat down and he made an offer. Suddenly, Clay turned competent. It was clear to me that he was the one advocating for Chowhound within CNET, so I knew to deem him my ally in negotiation rather than an adversary. I understood that he'd make the best offer he felt he could. And he mentioned a number, and explained how he'd arrived at that number. He did this very clearly and very skillfully. This is what Clay is damned good at.

As I left the building, darting down steps to make my flight, I had a lot to think about. I needed to press Washington Post for an answer. I needed to gently let down the mogul who'd offered to quit his day job and come work for Chowhound. And I needed to call Bob. But, most of all, I needed to edit four newsletters and thwart the latest in a very long series of attacks by "Julie", a psychopathic vandal who'd worked full time over the previous decade scheming to subvert Chowhound discussion via thousands of aliases using dozens of ISPs. It definitely buoyed my spirits to know I'd soon be paying off all my debts and moving into nicer digs than my Queens hovel, but nothing's ever for sure, much hard work lay ahead, and there was scant time for rumination about the future. I hardly looked up from my laptop as the taxi brought me to the airport, as I waited at the gate, and during my six hour flight back home.

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