Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 4

First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

In the previous installment, I'd learned some very interesting things from a powerful media executive, but had no idea why he'd asked to meet me in the first place.

Acquisition was clearly not on the table; Chowhound was no fit for the titanic conglomerate he helped run. So something else was going on. But one thing was for sure, this wasn't just another hand-job of the sort I described in
installment #2, where VIPs pretend to want to help but mostly just want to eat with That Chowhound Guy. This latest mogul was talking more than he was eating. And he was actually offering helpful information. After eight years of buying dinner for zillionaires, this was a first.

But we finished our meal, shook hands, and went our separate ways without any explanation offered. It was a flyby. Whatever was up would be revealed at a later time, and there was no sense in my getting pushy.

There was much to digest for the time being. Over and over, I played the scenario in my mind. To keep Chowhound alive, we'd need to solicit a few hundred thousand dollars of investment money (which would entail ongoing communication and collaboration - not to say pressure and bullying - from the investors). We'd need to bring on many new moderators to handle a traffic surge. And we'd need to replace our software. Plus, of course, keep feeding the monster - the ghastly daily overhead which preserved Chowhound's value as a resource (readers unfamiliar with Chowhound's forum should understand that it serves less as a social network than a trove of aggregated data, so the quality and focus of that data is paramount).

We'd spent years trying to replace our ancient, over-burdened software. Its primitiveness had served the purpose of deflecting traffic until around 2003, but it was around then that we began to fear an absolute limit. That is, we could foresee the day when our tech would blow up, spraying chowy shrapnel all over cyberspace. So we got serious about replacing it, bringing on two consecutive teams of programmers to tweak two different off-the-shelf forum software packages to meet our specific needs. For example, we needed to carry forward all the administrative tools we'd created in our old set-up, lest we lose the upperhand with the psychos and vandals. Since those tools were all unique, much labor-intensive customization would be needed.

The first push involved a couple of volunteer programmers working nights and weekends. They lagged, and the endeavor came to a halt when we realized our traffic had already outpaced the capacity of the new software. Our second push, with a paid programmer, became mired in technicalities just prior to launch. Both were Bataan-death-marches-within-the-greater-Bataan-death-march, and it had become clear that all off-the-shelf forum software is absolute shit, cobbled together with spit and wires - useful for small and medium-sized sites but completely unpredictable at larger scale. And we were too busy an enterprise to risk unpredictability (our ancient software was inadequate, but we'd consistently managed more or less 0% system downtime). Simply working, even working poorly, was infinitely better than crisis.

Better software could be built from scratch, but online forums are complicated beasts. Myriad people use them myriad ways - some intentionally destructive - and the off-the-shelf programs have at least been patched and tweaked over time. Creating custom software would mean reinventing countless wheels, and would require eons to really hone. All options, in other words, were sloggy.

Well, no. There was one other option: a quick, shallow, cynical makeover. We could have swapped in slick-looking off-the-rack software in under a week - admin controls and user features be damned. We could have slapped corporate lipstick on the pig (e.g. by eliminating our "mission statement" front page - an opinionated rant which deliberately rebuffed trendies). Moderation could have been eased back, stimulating a short term traffic swell (flame wars pack in audiences, per the gag about the talk radio host who, desperate for calls, asks if anyone out there wants to voice an opinion about murdering nuns). And we could have suspended publication of ChowNews, the apotheosis of our whole operation. I'd devote myself to shmoozing business people, letting the site drift, entropy be damned. Hey, we had the brand. With so much sizzle, the steak hardly mattered!

It was amusing to type the previous paragraph, because, until this very moment, none of those actions had actually occurred to me. I gag at the spectral image of my alternative-reality self. But, it's true: a little pig lipstick would have gone a long way to making us investor/corporate friendly, and a short term boost in traffic would have brought in fast ad money. Dear lord, It's so blessedly easy to suck. Sucking is seductive; it entices like a Siren. The Sirens of Suck literally suck you in. That's why they call it "sucking"!

I can't resist digressing with a quick vignette from the surreal Chowhound saga: Just before all this, very late in the hopeless slog period, I'd received an email from none other than the
Macarthur Foundation - the "genius grant" folks who toss $500,000, with no strings attached, at people doing clever and/or useful things. And they were writing to invite me to, uh, well.....to serve on the nominating committee! You know; to help them find deserving recipients out there! People who could stand to be rewarded with half a million bucks for their fine, outside-the-box work! Do I know anyone like that?

I dutifully sent in a few nominations, including one for the
Arepa Lady . And I was happy to do so, though none of my suggestions won. But it felt like someone crawling, thirsty, through a desert being asked to point jolly folks passing in a late model SUV toward parched souls who might like some lemonade.

But getting back to the story...

I tried to
think carefully about exactly what outcome I was hoping for. The only thing that seemed to make sense was out-and-out acquisition. Pass Chowhound to a company with the resources to keep it rolling (and low likelihood to ruin it), and let me get on with my life. Or else stick with the plan to shut it all down. In my position, painted into a corner after a brutal slog, nothing else seemed viable. Even acquisition would require a certain level of stamina and shmoozing, and I wasn't sure I still had it in me. But I waited to hear back from this latest titan of industry. Maybe he had some Hail Mary play up his sleeve.

In the next installment, we pick up the pace...and the mysterious mogul makes me an extremely shocking offer.

Read the next installment (#5)....

1 comment:

Carrie said...

These installments are like crack. I am addicted. I want to know more. xoxo

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