Friday, January 11, 2008

The Donut Shop

Wiley, my longtime Beijing roommate and the man behind chinabites, and I are always looking for good metaphors.

We realized we shared this important propensity when we worked together at LanguageCalls. And it was at LanguageCalls that the donut shop metaphor was born.

LanguageCalls is in the business of delivering live 1 on 1 tutoring using web conferencing and VoIP technologies. Andrew and Lloyd, LanguageCalls's founders, hired Wiley and me in the spring of 2006 because we spoke, read, and wrote Chinese, and because they wanted to set up headquarters in Beijing. The next 20 months, I'm sure Wiley would agree, were downright incredible. Just the drama of foreign founders doing startup work in China would have been educational and entertaining enough, but throw in an organization that grew from 6 to 50, a series of almost-deals with huge multinational companies, two massive IT Department overhauls, miraculously successful fundraising, romance, mystery, intrigue, karaoke, and we are forever indebted to Andrew and Lloyd.

Throughout our time there, the business faced one challenge that made all others look tiny. Some combination of VoIP's immaturity, our technical ineptitude, and the Great Firewall of China made for some intensely erratic sound quality, and since the service LanguageCalls provides is something as rooted in sound as language tutoring, we had a problem.

What do you do given a product that people want but a product that simply doesn't quite work properly?

Wiley and I offered a metaphorical solution. The donut shop. Find a space, and use whatever you have in the kitchen to start cooking something resembling donuts. Invite people to come in. Give them places to sit and chat and smell the donuts cooking. Pour some coffee. Give out tastes of misshapen or under-glazed proto-donuts. Ask people about their dream donut. Update them on the progress from the kitchen. Tell them about the new machine you bought and the powdered sugar shipment that just came in. Maybe even get the waiters and waitresses to do choreographed dances every once in a while. Basically, keep people entertained and interested while you build your kitchen, experiment, and figure out the recipe for a donut everyone's going to love.

At LanguageCalls, we did a lot of talking about donut shops (building a free online learning community, offering non-VoIP-based language learning services), but we never actually built one. Wiley and I still whine to Lloyd about this, but LanguageCalls rumbles on without us, and they have plenty of good reasons to go on doing their thing without listening to us.

I still dig the idea of the donut shop, however. And I think it'll do this next startup project lots of good to see if people like the smell of what we're cooking as much as we do.

It'll be a solid few months before we can give you the tools to compare companies and products and quickly and easily figure out what brands you should buy. It'll be a solid few months before we can send you to a totally sweet website complete with heaps of info and awesome community interaction functionality. Hopefully, in the meantime, we can attract some readers to this blog, keep everyone curious, and find out what you think we should do to make the donut's we're cooking even tastier.


Unknown said...

Not quite sure where this fits in. There has to be a conversation somewhere.