Thursday, April 19, 2012

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 22

Previous installment
First installment
All installments in reverse chronological order

Before signing up with CNET, I studied their previous acquisitions to see how those sites had held up. One had been put through the wringer; the community was overhauled suddenly and insensitively, leaving loyal regulars incensed. I mentioned this to Clay, who explained that the catastrophe was greatly regretted. Lessons had been learned, and such mistakes would never be repeated. But, within a few weeks of becoming a CNET employee, I overheard him refer to that transition as an unmitigated success story. And that's when I understood what was coming for Chowhound.

Clay gutted everything. When I reminded him of his early promise to fix "only what was broken", he smirkingly shot back "Yeah, everything's broken".

Well, then, we needed to build it back up again, didn't we? Early in the process, Clay hired some consultants to work up a profile of four imaginary-yet-definitive Chowhound users. I swear I'm not making this up:
Andrew, culinary student, 27 years. Lives in Oakland, but his family is in Seattle. He uses a Mac, and loves lamb, duck, beef, local organic produce. Cooks five nights a week for self and roommates. Eats lunch at school, dinner out twice per week. Tries new restaurants every other week. 

David, lawyer, 35 years. Lives in Pasadena, uses Windows, loves all kinds of food, but wife has a nut allergy. Likes to make up his own recipes, and the wife does the baking. Eats out on weekends. Likes Chowhound because "it's so open and participatory!".

Margaret, retired administrator, 60. Lives in New Rochelle, uses a Mac, loves stews and braises. Tries new restaurants once per month. Son is a vegan. 

Sandy, IT projects manager, age 38. Feels like she is always getting stuck going to the same places even though she really likes finding new treasures. Uses a Windows laptop. Husband travels a lot on business, so she often meets co-workers after work and girlfriends for weekend brunch. She is a social person.
The one thing all have in common, besides the puzzling fact that none of them seem to eat out very much, is that these don't sound remotely like the type of people who'd made Chowhound what it is. I told Clay this - that neither Andrew, David, Margaret, nor Sandy sound anything like me, any of my chowhoundish friends, or any of the site regulars I knew. He grinned broadly and said "That's great!".

(Why, then, does the site not suck? Because 1. Chowhound's culture had considerable momentum, and 2. Clay couldn't, thank god, actually make anything happen.) 

A marketing guru was brought in at great expense for a day-long seminar, putting us all through a series of exercises, pondering terribly deep questions such as "If Chowhound were a color, what color would it be?". It was a delight to watch Clay and the other genius executives knead their brows, applying all that fabulous mental horsepower. Bologna sandwich eaters looking deeply inside themselves for an answer to "What shape would Chowhound be if it were a shape?".

I watched with mouth agape. Welcome to corporate America, home of the uncreative! Why "uncreative"? Because creative people can swiftly intuit the underpinnings and dynamics of things, generate options, and sift through them to pluck out a winner. That's what creativity is! But most people are not creative, and corporations are vehicles enabling uncreative types to build shitty things following rote formulas via blunt force. Shitty things, I hasten to add, which sometimes make lots of money, because while such people may lack creativity, they compensate with relentlessness. And then they confuse financial success with confirmation of their creative brilliance. Bill Gates really believes his company makes splendid software.

Real creativity is nothing but a bee in this bonnet. Would anyone at Burger King appreciate a grill man who's worked out a tweak for tastier Whoppers? How long would that guy last?

One day, early in my tenure, Clay informed me it was absolutely business-critical that we acquire a massive database of recipes. He'd tried to buy a couple of recipe sites, but they'd rebuffed his offers. I asked him to give me two hours. I took a walk, lost in thought. Then I chatted with some of the other Chowhound managers, thought some more, and typed up a proposal for how the Chowhound community could generate a high-quality, neatly normalized trove of thousands of original recipes within three months for a few thousand bucks (the cost of copy editors). It was clearly viable; even an idiot could see it.

Clay skimmed my proposal, furious. I'd applied creative thinking...and that's just not the way things are done around here, Jim! In the future, please spare me your loosey/goosey, artsy/fartsy "big ideas". When we have a business need, we sit around a conference table and apply tools and methods proven to yield desirable results. We use real metrics, not a heap of magical bullshit, and capable executives collaborate to determine the best possible course of action. Do you really imagine - are you arrogantly disrespectful enough to imagine - that you can just, like, leapfrog all that with your cockamamie homegrown "solution" which you just pulled out of your ass?

Well, yeah, actually. I can. And I can also understand Chowhound without resorting to shapes and colors, or perky yuppie thumb puppets with improbably fleshed-out backstories.

But, hey, it's not just Clay. It's not just CNET. This is just how it is. A corporation is no place for a genuinely creative person. Creativity threatens the hierarchical structure and skirts established procedures ("procedure" and "creativity" being natural antagonists). Uncreative people don't have ideas, so they resort to various mental braces and pulleys to compensate. But they don't see those things as remedial; they feel, to them, like Grown-Up Tools. Actual ideas - which they don't have, don't understand, can't recognize, and don't trust - seem absurdly juvenile and scarily subversive (as, indeed, they are!).

The best route for creative people with business impulses is to hatch one's own startup. And then sell out to puddy pud-puds who'll follow procedures to maintain it and apply relentlessness to profit from it. Just do not, for god's sake, allow yourself to be hired on! 

Of course, Clay never got his recipes. Meanwhile, the Chowhound Home Cooking board has been chaotically spewing a daily torrent of excellent, fresh, non-copyrighted ones, but nothing's being done to cull and compile them in organized fashion. (CHOW offers a maddeningly unnavigable recipes database, and they essentially hide the means for users to add their own.)

I concluded the previous installment with this cliffhanger:
One horrible initiative was actually pushed through...and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.
CNET/CBS's failure to capture, organize, and repurpose Chowhound's prodigious data torrent is the basis of the problem, as we'll discuss in installment #24, after a brief digression in the next installment, #23.

Read the next installment (#23)


Anonymous said...

The recipe database still exists. The Restaurants database (their attempt to Yelp-ify the site by trying to turn the Chowhound restaurant discussions into quantifiable, rankable data snippets) is what's been eliminated.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks. I've corrected the article.

I do understand the distinction between the two databases, but had thought they got rid of user-contributable recipes, as well. For one thing, it's completely hidden. If you click on the big "Recipes" header, you arrive at a page intended to draw you into a hell of clickbait slideshows. There's no mention there of the ability to add to this database......though I did finally manage to find the page for doing that.

So my point stands....the recipes posted to the Home Cooking board are lost to any repurposing, and there is only the flimsiest and most half-assed effort to draw users to contribute recipes into any sort of normalized database. This is a major misstep, and I'll explain the reasons behind it next time.

sku said...

I love this series. It's such a great insight into the world of tech buyouts, the corporate mindset, etc. Thanks!

P.S. I'd love to see you post these more often.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks. Next one's coming soon. I'm working on it now!

But, fwiw, many other posts here could be seen as belonging to the same series. I've been sharing insights I've gained from these experiences, re: life, people, ambition, earnestness, money, creativity, etc. In a way, I've been telling this story from both ends: the tale of what I went through, concurrently with the stuff I've discovered as a result....and as the result of the result!

Carol said...

You show true 1-1. I am more of a 1-3, who is a good assist in an org. This is great stuff. 👏👏👏

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