Heartbreak

The other night, my editor Sarah Lacy forwarded me a lead for a possible story. The email had a cocky subject heading: “FWD: Yo Zuck, we just nailed Facebook Search.” It was from Chris Smith, a real estate veteran who had turned himself into a prominent industry blogger in New York City. He had a nifty idea. He’d developed a search engine called Curaytor that would conjure up long lost Facebook discussions and conversations from public groups on the social network. That was Monday.

You might know where I’m going with this…

The next day, Mark Zuckerberg dropped a massive bomb on Smith. Really massive — like Facebook’s user base massive. The company of course introduced Graph Search, its own search mechanism that makes it easier for users to sort through pictures, friends, places and interests.

For Smith, the news was like a kick to the groin, he said. It’s incredibly scary to risk everything, give up the security of the familiar, and pursue the entrepreneurial path. Not to mention, in Smith’s case, leave a job in real estate earning over six figures a year. His wife, a student at a university in New York City, had already expressed doubt that starting the company was the right thing. He remembers seeing her face when the news broke. “She was sitting there doing her homework, and she looked up at me. Her heart was broken,” says Smith.

It didn’t matter what exactly Facebook had announced, or how its product worked. Just hearing the words “Facebook” and “search” at a big, splashy press announcement with over a hundred journalists — after spending a year developing his own product — was a shock to the system. “I was worried about getting the press release ready, and then I hear this,” he says. “And it hurt, man. My heart was in my stomach.”

If nothing else, it shows just how unpredictable external factors are for entrepreneurs. So surprising was the news to Smith, in Curaytor’s demo video, he inexplicably quotes Zuckerberg at TechCrunch Disrupt saying that Facebook isn’t even trying to build a search product. To Smith’s discredit, this is actually contradictory to reports that said the company would do it “at some point.”

Still, you really can’t blame him for being caught off guard at the timing of it. “At some point” is very open ended. Even the tech press was thrown off the scent, with some thinking the product would be mobile-related.

After a day in despair dealing with the crushing blow, Smith read up on Graph Search and realized his product was doing something slightly different that what Facebook was offering. Graph Search doesn’t focus on retrieving past conversations. “I went online and rallied the support system,” he says. “Greatness is marked by how we deal with adversity.”

This is more the story of an entrepreneur dealing with a great obstacle, but while Smith has a promising idea on his hands, he has a long way to go. I tried out the search engine, and it’s pretty rough in the early goings. Smith gave me the example of a parent with a sick child using the engine. Instead of going to WebMD, he or she could look through conversations from public parenting groups on Facebook to get answers. When I tested it, a search for “flu” only returns conversations that have the word “flu” as part of a bigger word, like “flush” or “fluff.” A query for “flu symptoms” only brings up one result that includes the word “symptoms,” but not “flu.”

An effective conversation search tool does seem useful, but it would be more helpful as a personal navigation feature – being able to quickly search through my own timeline and private groups instead of having to scroll down ad nauseam.

Smith does see the silver lining for Facebook beating him to the punch. “Now a billion people have the term ‘Facebook search’ in their vernacular,” he says. He’s excited to find ways to make Facebook’s search product better, and tailoring it to advertisers. “I want to be the one to coin ‘Facebook search optimization,’” he says.

So, meet the first company whose (inadvertent) purpose is to build off of Facebook’s Graph Search. There will be many more of them to come.

[Image Credit: Thomas Hawk on Flickr]