Monday, February 2, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 6

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So this was what it felt like to be smack dab in the center of a bubble! Laws of physics no longer applied. Nothing made any sense at all. Up was down, in was out. Michael Brecker was dead while Kenny G lived on.

But there was logic within the greater absurdity. The guy smelled money, that's all. Again, Murdoch had just bought MySpace, Web 2.0 had dawned, online communities were on the brink of investor heat, and my eager exec, exquisitely well-connected in the media world, was in prime position to see the new bubble forming, and determined to get in early on this one. Chowhound was run by a couple of shmucks sitting on a brand with far more potential value than they realized. Their content was primo, their brand far-reaching, and the food niche would certainly be pivotal in Web 2.0. Chowhound was, in other words, a fast and easy way in.

He was offering to tap his life savings to make over the site, replace its software, and generally give Chowhound the veneer of corporate acceptability. He'd do the shmoozing and handle the deals. He'd surely want a great big slab of equity, though we never got to that level of detail. It seemed like he might solve all our problems. More than anything, we needed another hand on deck, and this was certainly one heckuva hand!

Or was he? During our meetings, he'd shown only a vague comprehension of what Chowhound was about. He didn't much appreciate the credo or understand the culture. His mind was feverishly spinning, and the unique qualities of the operation itself were nowhere in that mix. This was the peak of the housing bubble, and I had the distinct and unpleasant sensation that his intention was for Chowhound to be "flipped", to use the real estate term for a property speculatively traded for a quick buck.

Which wasn't necessarily a deal-ender. If I could retain some control regarding what was done and where we wound up, this new development might represent a lifesaving pathway to an endgame where I'd go write books and the community would flourish. But as we discussed his gameplan, my hope withered. Mr. Honcho's idea was to tear it all down and build up something new, using, ugh, focus groups.

Chowhound had a vibe, and that vibe was the nucleus of attraction for (at the time) nearly a million unique visitors per month. With no publicity budget, our success was entirely due to that powerful and singular vibe, which extended in subliminal ways into all aspects of the operation. The vibe was seamless because it was real. Everyone running the site was sincere and cared deeply, and perfectly mirrored the sensibilities of our audience. You just can't beat Love as a unifying principle. If, say, Coca Cola or Union Carbide had such synchronization of the heart, there'd be no limit to what they could achieve. Instead, the corporate world has created a vast array of mechanisms to simulate that - and to hypnotize various parties into sniffing it when it's not really there. Comparatively shoddy workarounds, all.

The standard corporate mechanisms can't attract a million smart, engaging, generous people to chip in expert, honest, savvy tips. Such a crowd hung around Chowhound because the place intuitively felt right, and, by definition, these were not folks whose sensibilities could be cynically manipulated. If they were, they'd be dining in chains and buzzy restaurants, obediently following conventional wisdom rather than intrepidly ferreting out unsung treasure. Not only weren't they lemmings, they were the loyal opposition to lemminghood. We'd gathered the un-gatherable. We'd herded cats! And this guy was talking about using focus groups - focus groups!! - as if that was a step upward!

There were ways to tighten up our appearance and to scale up our traffic without losing all that value - without losing our cultural vibe. But corporate types, enmeshed in their processes of emulation, don't comprehend, much less value, authenticity. And they don't trust the concept of "vibes", except insofar as it can be broken down and craftily wielded as a tool of manipulation. What they trust is metrics - focus groups and other brass tacks, stone-cold, depersonalized numerical tools and guidelines. My would-be new partner's idea was to gut the operation, and swap in an instant-on mega-mass-market web site, aimed at the lowest common denominator, to leverage our established brand name.

Amid all the confusion and craziness, I knew two things for sure. First, nobody was going to gut Chowhound - to forsake its hard-won value, alienate its loyal audience, and erect ditzy shiny crap in its place. And, second, if this hotshot exec was willing to quit his lofty day job to come work for us, that meant we clearly had more pivot room than we'd imagined. So I didn't quite dismiss the proposal, but neither did I lead him on. I expressed my concerns....and I began to explore other options. 

Thinking back on it, my perplexingly tepid response must have sparked for him the same bemused observation his offer had sparked for me: "So this is what it feels like to be smack dab in the center of a bubble!"

Read the next installment (#7)....

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