You should make it a portal

In a recent interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Paul Graham said something that reminded me of an interesting story:

When Google started, there were eight to 10 successful established search engines already, and search was so uncool that they were trying to get people to call them “portals”.

I landed my first real programming job at a long defunct dot-com startup when I was a senior in high school in 1999. We were building an EBay for home improvement. Homeowners would post home improvement projects, and contractors would bid on them. We were going to take a cut out of each job.

One day the company’s founders called a meeting. They met with a top-tier investor and wanted to relay the feedback to the team. “He loved it”, they said. “The only piece of feedback he gave is that we should make it be more of a destination site. We should be building a portal.” So we did. We delayed the product to integrate a to-do list, a calendar, events management, and various collaboration features so that users would spend more time on the site.

The company ran out of money before we had a chance to launch. We rationalized the failure by telling ourselves and others that the dot-com bust prevented us from raising a second round of funding, but the real reason was that we blew through a million dollars with no real product to show for it. In hindsight, “the portal” wasn’t the only reason for failure, but it was a large contributing factor (at the time we were seriously considering licensing “Come Together” from The Beatles for a TV commercial, the idea being that home owners and contractors come together on the site).

What’s most interesting about this story is that both the investor and the founders were very smart people. The technical cofounder was from CMU, the business cofounder was from Yale. Both have gone on to do very interesting, intellectually challenging things. It’s very easy to credit our own intelligence for success and others’ ineptitude for failure, but stories like these suggest that our behavior often has much more to do with institutional (or social) knowledge than it does with our own mind.

What is going to look ridiculous to us ten years from now about the current startup mentality?