Saturday, September 6, 2008

Two Horses

Last fall, I spent a late night at Ludovic's office in Beijing on the phone to a sporting goods entrepreneur turned corporate social responsibility expert.*

I had just started walking him through the proto carrot project vision, and he asked what I knew about my competition. I rattled off a few of the little projects I'd seen and then mentioned one sort of wild card that I'd seen lurking in the space

A friend that had just finished his computer science PhD work had recently told me about a classmate of his that had gone to work for a startup project with deep connections to consumption research being done at their university. My friend thought I should meet his classmate, that the work I was doing sounded like it had heaps of interesting overlap with the startup project on which his classmate had just started working. My friend sent an email and linked his classmate up to the old Productipedia demo interfaces. When the classmate responded, he told my friend no way they could meet with me; the projects were WAY too similar.

I thought that was a bit weird. I was bummed not to have connected. I was certainly still curious. But the internets had taught me a little bit about their project, and nothing I had read had convinced me that they had everything figured out, so I figured I'd keep on doing my thing, building the tool that I wished already existed.

The voice on the phone told me he knew about the wild card project too. Knew some of the people involved, in fact. And he told me I might want to reevaluate my situation. It looked to him like a two horse race, and he asked me to look at some facts before predicting a winner. One horse has venture funding, research university resources at their fingertips, and a year long head start. Which horse does the rational gambler like?

I responded modestly and politely, hung up, and, shaken, took a deep breath.

The next morning I woke up and wrote my friend's classmate an email. I threw it all out there. I mentioned stealth mode and secrecy, my desire, above any considerations of business success or failure, for a marketplace equipped with more and more perfect information, and my hope that we could approach this thing collaboratively rather than competitively.

He agreed to meet; we did; and it was fun and educational and left me convinced that I needed to keep working on my project, trying to build the tool that I had envisioned.

A couple of days ago, I met with him again. For the third time now. And, while he was, as always, significantly cagier than me, he looked at me a whole lot less suspiciously.

Now maybe that's due to the fact that he doesn't think my silly unscientific ideas stand a chance, but, even if so, it was nice to feel a little trust emerging, and it helped me get back into the right frame of mind around his project.

I'm feeling much more genuine in my rooting for them now. I've always wanted to root for them, but they've been weird. They've given some strange impressions to quite a few of the other "competitors." They're secretive. And, frankly, sometimes they're downright unfriendly.

But seeing them again and feeling them warm up to me makes me not want to get hung up on that.

They get weird because they're doing tough work, and it's discouraging sometimes, and they have legal and financial obligations that I don't have. That's tough. I need to give them the benefit of the doubt and remember that what I want is a world in which I can figure out, quickly and conveniently, which toothpaste manufacturing company I feel most comfortable supporting.

If they can make that happen, excellent. I still recommend betting heavy on my little underdog horse, but, as long as someone crosses that finish line, we all win.

*Note: A character whose identity I think I had probably better not reveal. Not yet. As much as I love radical transparency, sometimes mystery feels like a smarter (safer) strategy. Hopefully someday I'll fill in this little gap, and we'll laugh about the silliness of keeping secrets, but, today, in this post, I'm going to let a few people remain nameless.