Monday, December 15, 2008

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 1

Today my agreement with CNET Networks has expired. The contract barred me from competing with them or "disparaging" them (how's that for a broad term?) for three years. But, as of today, I'm free. So this seems like a good time to tell some of the story, in the hope that what I've learned is of use to anyone out there. There won't be much juicy disparagement (let's cut to the chase: I'm generally pleased with how the site has fared, am on good terms with chief Jane Goldman, and remain convinced it was the right move), but I nonetheless think you'll find the tale edutaining.

Every business school student knows about The Slog (any resemblance to the title of this web site, by the way, is strictly coincidental). This is the painful time when a company's founders, out of idealism, denial, or both, strain to keep a lost cause going in spite of all reason. For a period of utterly joyless weeks or months, the monster is fed, deadlines are met, and lights stay on...barely. The founders take on more and more workload themselves, expending their sweat equity when no other sort of equity remains. Eventually, they collapse from exhaustion and the operation goes under. It's a classic scenario, and it gives shudders to contemplate.

Chowhound slogged for a record seven years. During that period, I worked fifteen hour days seven days per week unpaid (to support myself I drained savings, maxed out credit cards, minimized overhead, and relied greatly on the kindness of family, friends, and strangers). My typical day included editing three sprawling weekly newsletters, wholly writing a fourth (alone, the most challenging task I'd ever set myself), recruiting and supervising a staff of volunteers, handling customer service inquiries, running an online storefront (including orders and fulfillment as well as working with designers and vendors to create an entirely customized inventory), fielding a dozen press inquiries per week, downloading enormous Apache log files several times per hour (via a dial-up connection - I couldn't afford broadband) and raking through them to defend the site against vandals and lunatics, endlessly recruiting programmers to redo our software (and managing and testing their efforts), and constantly scheming, consulting, and developing plans to make the damned thing more self-sufficient so I might one day return to doing what I really wanted to do: write books and play music. Not a day passed where I didn't contemplate shutting it all down, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. It's not so easy for Dr. Frankenstein to slay his own creation.

The worst thing about slogging is that the daunting challenges of day-to-day operations leave the principals fatally overwhelmed and overextended. At a certain point, there's no way out. I'd conjured up, over the years, some very clever ideas for how Chowhound could be profitable - or at least self-sufficient. But toward the end there was no leftover time, energy, or resources to devote to pushing forward with any of those ideas even if opportunities arose. As anyone who's actually built something will attest, execution is everything. But one can't possibly execute while flailing to merely endure, much less to personally survive.

I had started Chowhound as a lark, out of fondness for discussing food and swapping tips with others. But my life had come to have nothing to do with food or its discussion. It's a uniquely American problem: you start off with a passion and talent for something, and natural inertia draws you away from that thing and into managing a structure wherein others indulge their passion and talent for that increasingly distant-seeming thing. All energy winds up going into maintaining the structure, which is generic (you may as well be operating a tanning salon), and starkly divorced from your original interest. And so I found that I'd become a businessman, a manager, a marketer, an editor, a publisher, a retailer, an umpire, and, most of all, a tireless janitor, all in the interest of keeping alive an operation facilitating other peoples' discussion of food. None were roles I desired or enjoyed. I'm a writer and musician.

And the damned thing wouldn't stop growing. As it scaled, all tasks augmented, the monthly server bill began including devastating $3000 high-bandwidth surcharges, and our archaic software was ripping apart at the seams, frequently requiring my partner Bob Okumura, who still has nightmares, to rebuild the data, painstakingly by hand one byte at a time. Our volunteer moderators faced an ever-growing crowd (nearly a million per month by the end), 99% of whom were the most wonderful, smart, generously food-loving souls imaginable. The problem was that as our audience increased, so did the scary 1%, which ran the moderators ragged (at our size, even the .01% rabid psycopaths at the far end of the bell curve represented a hundred or so individuals, some bombarding us nearly 24/7, one hallmark of psychopaths being, after all, dogged persistence). Chowhound would have closed years earlier if it wasn't for those moderators' thoughtful and heroic efforts. That the resource remained remarkably honest, on-topic, and flame-free was a testament to their labors.

Outsiders, observing the large and well-loved structure I'd created, assumed I was deliriously successful and content. People, after all, eat bugs to get on television for a minute, and my name was appearing regularly in major media. I'd become "That Chowhound Guy", but, while I was proud of the site, I'd created it on a whim, as a hobby. My life goal was never to host an online forum. And interacting with reporters took time and energy, and presented daunting pitfalls (which I'll discuss another time). After the heady first couple of articles appeared, it became mere landscape to me, the way a restaurateur soon ceases to thrill at seeing his takeout menu on the desks of strangers.

The Slog was a bad time, and I don't remember much, aside from day after day of waking, going to the computer, and, many hours later, getting back up and going off to sleep. I'd often forget to eat. Days would drift by where I didn't go outside or talk to anyone. Literally everything in my life was eventually let go of: my health, most of my friendships, my musical career (even my trombone technique), and any notion of romance. My hair turned prematurely grey and fell out.

When I finally reached the point where I found myself avoiding busy roads (a compulsion had been building to throw myself into traffic), I realized it was time. On July 30, 2005, I emailed Bob and told him I couldn't do it anymore. We quietly, privately hashed out a schedule for shutting things down later that summer. We prepared this "goodbye" page, poised to eventually swap in for our home page. And I, mortally strapped for cash, applied for a job working the counter at a computer store owned by an old friend. The application was rejected.

Then, two weeks later, I got an email out of the blue from one of the most important figures in the online world, a senior executive for a gigantic, titanic household-name media conglomerate. He wanted to take me to dinner.

Read the next installment (#2)...


Anonymous said...

Jim, to say thank you for all those years of work feels a little trite. But, anyhow, thank you. Chowhound has brought me an extraordinary amount of pleasure in good food over the past eight years since I started posting there.

I remember the frequent pleas for help and worries that everything would have to close shop. Honestly, I still don't know where I'd go for food conversations if that ever happened. so I'm very interested in hearing the rest of the story...

keep it coming.

Adam Christensen

Anonymous said...

Currently slogging in Michigan. Deja vu.

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