12 weeks

Robert S. Thau (rst@ai.mit.edu)
Mon, 12 Jul 1999 18:18:01 -0400 (EDT)

Gregory Alan Bolcer writes:
> This article talks about the trend of high tech, high skilled
> startups are drawing their talent via the ideas, and many are
> walking away from options worth tens of millions.
> Greg
> I hate the term e-pinions.
> http://www.nytimes.com/library/magazine/home/19990711mag-tech-startup.html

The oddest thing about this article for me, at least, was the extent
they went to to keep the "big secret" of their operating plan,
disclosed only to job candidates who had already got to the second
interview --- a participatory product-review site.

The reason that this struck me as odd is that, off the top of my head,
I can think of at least a couple of outfits that are doing pretty much
the same thing. For starters, deja.com has been trying to bootstrap
itself into a similar thing via its new "Deja ratings" feature for a
couple of months, and they even have a national advertising campaign
going right now, with a slogan ("Share what you know; learn what you
don't") with a ring quite similar to epinions' "Everybody is an expert
on something".

Then there are niche players. For starters, there are the Zagats ---
Bronson's article mentions them as having a similar business model off
the web, but for some reason, he neglects to mention that they already
have their own web site. And of course, there's Greenspun's
photo.net, which has been doing exactly the epinions thing within its
domain for several years now, complete with ecommerce (the classified
ads section). Oddly enough, Phil's book, after describing photo.net
in some detail, has a page or two of argument lampooning the idea that
anyone could make money off it.

I'm not at all sure Phil's right, BTW --- the Zagats have had a going
business for quite a while now, though it hasn't exactly brought them
"airplane money". But that's not what I'm wondering about.

What I'm wondering about is, why the secrecy? It can't be to stop
another well-funded group from going after the same idea, since that's
happening anyway. It's probably not to stop somebody else from doing
a similar site, because that's probably happening too.
One obvious answer is "the TransMeta factor" --- they kept their
operating plan secret because secrecy *itself* was a tool for
generating buzz. "We've got this great new idea we can't tell you
about" certainly sounds a lot more tempting than "We think deja.com is
blowing it on Deja ratings, and we believe we have a team that can do
the same idea better".

But is that all there is here? Perhaps Bronson doesn't tell all, and
there's a secret strategy he doesn't disclose (though he does quote
the epinions honchos as saying that theirs is "an execution play" and
clever strategy is not what they need). Or perhaps I'm just missing