Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 7

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I started shaking trees. As I said a couple of installments ago, the only solution that seemed to make sense was out-and-out acquisition. But things had turned so surreal with the dawn of this Web 2.0 bubble that I figured it wasn't a good time to disregard options. So I made the rounds of old contacts, and found them all taking Chowhound's prospects far more seriously (though I'm unsure whether it was because they'd spotted the impending bubble, or because my tone had acquired a newly confident gravitas). And there were a few strafing runs by some scary biz sharks, easily enough identified and deflected. One stood out particularly.

I'd long been friendly with a well-connected young online media businessman who'd quickly risen inside a couple big-name Internet companies. I called him and discussed our situation, and he introduced me to a shadowy dude who I'll call Vrtra.

I was told (and have no reason to disbelieve) that Vrtra had founded one of Richard Branson's operations, though none of it Googled at the time. In fact, the guy hardly showed up in Google searches at all, except for his creepily charming blog about his drab outer boroughs neighborhood, which he painted as alluring as the French Riviera (he owned prime real estate there, and was using a multi-pronged approach to create "buzz" in order to pump up property values).

After some preliminary emails, I asked to meet him, and he reluctantly agreed, showing up in a local diner in silk shirt and snotty attitude, actually uttering this impossibly Pacino-esque line: "You wanted to meet me. Ok, fine; here I am, you've met me."

He didn't much want to talk about Chowhound. He certainly didn't want to hear my ideas or concerns for its future. He wanted to shove food in his face, give me his slimy wet fish handshake, wipe said slimy wet fish hand disdainfully with antibiotic wet-nap, and hastily return to his sports car and pampered, rarified life.

Though we hadn't discussed any arrangement, much less negotiated terms, a "letter of agreement" was sent for my signature, and it was an astonishing document. Vrtra had intended to give its language the veneer of crisp, business-like equability, but his sneering derision rang out from each obnoxious line. It went something like this: he'd essentially seize Chowhound, make design and tech changes without input from me, and then he'd do with the company as he damned well pleased; selling, dumping, or pimping it out at his sole discretion. Oh, and he'd take a very fat share of the proceeds (though, kindly, there'd be no fee for his services if he failed to squeeze any lucre from the thing). I'd not be contractually obligated to "crawl up and die", specifically, but the suggestion was clearly implicit.

So...waving goodbye to Larry the Liquidator, Little Red Ridinghound continued his merry romp down the forest path, hoping to find Grandmother's House (while still desperately straining to keep the damned site up and running).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone said in an earlier blog post comment, this story is like crack.

It is quite fascinating to find out the behind-the-scenes story behind our beloved Chowhound that so many of us really didn't know was so near shutting down. Yes, you told us after it was sold, but none of these details. I don't think anyone but you, Bob and perhaps the Mods ever really knew until now.

I'm so utterly grateful you continued slogging through the miasma of trying to keep the site up and running. CH is an addiction - I'd be lost without it!

And I've got to say, I love your writing style. Vividly descriptive (I'm bemoaning you had to deal with the "slimy wet fish handshake" from Vrtra - one of the worst business occurrences ever!) Thanks to you, I continue to have a place to go when I'm bored at work. ;-)

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