Monday, March 10, 2008

Oh Danny Joy

Shaun Clancy, keeper of Foley's Pub in New York City, banned "Danny Boy" from his establishment for the next few weeks. Clancy says the song, immensely popular with Irish Americans, shouldn't be played on St. Patrick's Day because it is a depressing tale of longing and loss. I loved this story because after years of mindlessly listening to this funeral dirge on a day of celebration, Clancy lowered the boom. Imagining yet one more St. Patrick's Day of customers singing mornfully "And if you come, When all the flowers are dying, And I am dead, as dead I well may be," Clancy pre-emptively shouted "cut, cut, stop the madness, give me Star of the County Down."

Now that I've got your Irish up, why do we celebrate St. Patrick's Day at all ? Something about snakes, right ? Well there's more to it than that. St. Patrick was born in Britain in 391 AD. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped and enslaved by raiders and taken to Ireland, where he herded sheep for 6 years. Isolated from the world, he turned to daily prayer for sustenance. He eventually escaped and returned to England, where he studied religion for 15 years. He then came back to Ireland and accelerated the introduction of Christianity. A practical man, he incorporated the sun, which Irish pagans worshipped, into a Christian cross, creating what is still known today as the Celtic Cross. And why on March 17 ? Well, you see, that's the Feast Day for St. Patrick, believed to be the date of his death in 460 AD. Tired of corn beef and cabbage ? I have a recipe for Ballymaloe Irish Stew. Had enough of NYC's St. Patrick's Day parade ? Boston and Dublin are obvious alternatives, but two of the best celebrations are in Savannah, Georgia and Butte, Montana.

Am I a Hibernophile who Googled the whole day to find all this information ? No, I spent about 8 minutes on the Web Guide to St. Patrick's Day. Drop in for a visit and before you know it, you'll be the one railing against incongruent "traditions" and shouting "cut, cut, ..." at a St. Patrick's Day celebration of your own.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Almost Perfect Feedback

To start a company is to climb aboard an emotional rollercoaster. I left the office on Monday on a real high; we had spent much of the day discussing development plans, and I was exceedingly optimistic about all of them. As I rode the elevator down with a colleague, I said "today was so great that tomorrow is certain to be a downer." And it was, as we focused on all the hard work in front of us to make these plans a reality. Because of my prior experience, I've been able to adopt the Stockdale Paradox (see my earlier blog post) of confronting reality while never losing faith that we will ultimately be successful, in large part because I've assembled a truly remarkable team of talented and passionate people, and passionate people are unstoppable. And yet its still quite rewarding to receive third-party appreciation to affirm our efforts. A week ago, we published, an anthology of media coverage of the NY Giants' remarkable 2007 season. To read how the media elite emphatically wrote off the team, its defense, quarterback and head coach as hopelessly mediocre, and then celebrating the dramatic Super Bowl win is a terrific tale of redemption.

On Monday, Sports Illustrated named AlmostPerfectSeason a "hot click," and wrote "Here's one of the more amazing sites we've seen in a while." The glowing reviews have poured in steadily since:

"A great website called Almost Perfect Season serves as a time capsule of the incredible 2007-08 Giants campaign..... It is really interesting to look back at many of these articles and how down on the Giants many were early on. "

"stumbled across this amazingly comprehensive synopsis"

"This is an amazing read. If you have the time you can get lost in it for hours."

"Ah, absolutely loved it."

All of these pats on the back don't change the reality that we have a lot of hard work in front of us to make FindingDulcinea the next great Internet brand. But they do strenghten our conviction that we will ultimately triumph.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Plenty of Room at the Inn

Since the commercial Internet began to seriously take shape in the mid-1990s, pundits have been eager to declare “game over,” anoint the “winners,” and deem all subsequently launched ventures to be “too late to the party.” An August 1997 article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Microsoft and CNET were joining “an increasingly crowded field now dominated by Yahoo Inc., Excite Inc., InfoSeek Corp. and Lycos Inc. The new sites will also face off against a host of other search services, including Alta Vista, HotBot, WebCrawler, Inktomi, Open Text, Deja News and Magellan.” Star stock analyst Keith Benjamin is quoted saying "There's a prize for first place. There's also a prize for second place, though I don't know how big the disparity is between the prize for first and the prize for second. I don't think there's a prize for third." More than a decade later, Benjamin’s observation proved true, as the largest search engine dominates the space, and the horse running in third is desperate to combine with the one in second. But no one predicted at the time that the search leader a decade later would be Google, a company that at the time existed only in the brainwaves of a pair of college students.

It can be difficult to look at a start-up and predict its ultimate success against apparently entrenched competition. I’ll admit to discouraging a friend from buying stock in AOL in 1995, because I believed it could never overcome Prodigy’s headstart and superior backing from IBM and Sears. And I have on my bookshelf “The 100 Best Internet Stocks to Own for the Long Run,” published in 2000. Based on a quick glance, I estimate that half of them are out of business or a mere shell. And of course the fall of giants is not just an Internet phenomenon, as IBM and AT&T attest.

And yet despite the brief history of the Internet, in which “entrenched” leaders can disappear quickly and new companies can rise meteorically, most start-ups are still greeted with “you’re late to the party.” The New York Times reported today on “Women of the Web,” a venture backed by a cadre of elite women from the book publishing, journalism, advertising, television and acting professions. The CEO, Joni Evans, was a star agent and chief executive for William Morris, Simon & Schuster and Random House, and thus apparently understands what people want to read. She believes that women over 40 (and with a modicum of intelligence) are tired of being talked down to on the Internet. So she’s putting together a series of “conversations” on issues germane to these women’s lives. Readers will enjoy informal and intimate musings of gossip columnist and TV personality Liz Smith, advertising guru Mary Wells, noted author Peggy Noonan, 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl, as well as stars such as Lily Tomlin, Marlo Thomas and Candace Bergen. Each of these women has staying power; they have all been in the public eye for 20-40 years. The site will develop a significant, and more importantly, affluential and influential audience, eager for the opportunity to read intelligent fare and interact with these icons.

Pundits, including the Times' writer, question whether users will use it in lieu of iVillage, More and other leading women’s interest Web sites (and it is worth noting that the Times ran this piece in its "Fashion and Style" section rather than "Business"). But this site’s audience is not visiting iVillage and indeed is not heavily using the Web at all right now. A core belief behind FindingDulcinea is that a large swath of Internet users significantly under utilizes the Internet because of how difficult it is to find quality, credible content. WomenontheWeb will build this, and people will come. As writer Joan Buck told the Times, “iVillage has always puzzled me …. I love the idea but it’s like Macy’s or something.”

The one thing I’d change is the domain name (yea, I know, glass houses. We went out on a limb with “FindingDulcinea,” and 18 months later I’m still convinced it’s a long-term winner). The Times article discusses the lengthy debate the founders had over the name. Liz Smith’s suggestion of “HotVoodoo” seems like a damn fine one to me. Ms. Smith, who claims to “still write with a feather” and faxes in her posts, has a great future as a domain name consultant.

And if Liz Smith can acquire domain name savvy, then this site's audience can use the Web more if presented with content that appeals to it.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The World Pays Off on Judgment

In 1998, I became general counsel of a start-up company (24/7 Media) in a new industry (Internet advertising). I was right-hand man to CEO Dave Moore, and advised the Board.

 Like all companies caught in the "no rules" wondrous bubble, we made strategic decisions we'd like to have back. But we made good ones as well, especially when our backs were pinned to the wall during the 3 year crash, and we were one of the few survivors from our peer group.

 I used to clunkily explain my role as "when we're facing a difficult situation and Dave asks 'what should we do now,' I'm good at helping him come up with the right answer." And then I had an "Aha !."

I read an essay by Judge Joseph McLaughlin, of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals and former Dean of Fordham Law School, in which he wrote that he long ago learned that "the world pays off on judgment - not brilliance, knowledge, and not experience or compassion either, though a fair portion of all of these is essential to the exercise of good judgment."

 In a single, precise word, Judge McLaughlin captured why many brilliant people fail; they have bad judgment. I vowed to use this word to focus my thinking in all future critical situations. This vow was cemented a few days later when I read a WSJ article about the sacking of a Fortune 50 CEO; a board member discussed a situation that the CEO handled very poorly, and said that the Board could forgive a mistake, but what the CEO did showed bad judgment.

Over the remainder of my long tenure at 24/7, most of the blow-ups that I witnessed at other companies could usually be pinned on bad judgment, often at companies run by young CEOs who may have lacked "experience or compassion." Facebook keeps popping up in scandal lately. It has a 23yo CEO whose prescience in a critical decision - whether to accept lucrative offers to sell the company for much less than its current value - is almost overshadowed by some colossally bad decisions that can only be ascribed to bad judgment. Now I read that he has hired a 38yo COO from Google, and plans to hire other senior executives. No doubt all of them will be brimming with brilliance and knowledge. One can only hope these qualities will be supplemented with equal measures of experience and compassion, and that this young CEO will rely on their good judgment to put an end to the parade of poor decisions that has made his job so difficult lately.