Sheer madness: Building a billion-dollar business or going bust

By Jim Burnett , written on August 3, 2013

From The News Desk

This is Part 2 of a PandoDaily series on starting a company in your 60s. Read Part 1, "Sheer madness: starting a company in your 60s is anything but glamorous," and come back next Saturday for the next installment. 

I came up with the concept for ExpertOpinions in 2000 -- it’s a giant-sized expansion of a print newsletter I used to publish. But I didn’t go to work on it in a concerted way until 2011, when I realized my career trajectory was arcing in the direction of a job as a Wal-Mart greeter.

Thirteen years ago, when many people still had dialup modems, I was shocked to discover that a site like I envisioned didn’t exist. In 2011, I was downright flabbergasted that there still weren’t any, despite the widespread recognition that finding high-quality consumer recommendations from unbiased experts is laborious and often futile.

I realize our team isn’t reinventing the wheel. There are plenty of consumer guides out there, but nothing close to (or, I would argue, as good) as the one we intend to build. That’s when I got serious about developing ExpertOpinions. It’s a huge challenge but I’m drawn to challenging endeavors – writing, playing golf, winning at the racetrack.

It took me 12 months to come up with the precise wording for our elevator pitch, almost as long as it took me to write a 380-page book about the women’s golf tour:

“ExpertOpinions will give you a quick, easy, and enjoyable way to find high-quality recommendations from unbiased experts in pretty much any category you can think of.”

If you’re thinking “I could have come up with that in an hour,” I won’t argue. I can be a slow learner.

In addition to the elevator pitch, we’ve got the rest of the material we need to present to venture capital firms -- a 300-plus page demo that you can play with, a pitch deck, a comprehensive business plan containing loads of numbers, and, by September, an extensive proof of concept survey to test our business model.

Jeff Clavier, the managing partner of venture capital firm SoftTech, says he looks for “3 A’s” when he evaluates start-up sites. He wants to see a big-ass market, a kick-ass product, and a smart-ass team.

We think we’ve got the requisite asses to turn ExpertOpinions into a smashing success.

Like most starry-eyed entrepreneurs I want to turn it into a billion dollar business. Feel free to hoot in derision if you are so inclined. That’s what the comments are for. Although its virtues are legion, the Internet, unfortunately, also offers people a quick, easy, and enjoyable way to express their inner vitriol.

The entrepreneurial world in the Bay Area certainly qualifies as its own separate universe. The Bay Area buzzes and hums with brainpower, ambition and ingenuity, and people searching for the Big Score in the same way miners panned for gold in the nearby Sierra foothills in the 19th century. It offers a breathtakingly beautiful landscape filled with strivers characterized by overweening ambition, hubris, and sharp elbows -- as well as a genuine desire to make the world a better place. It’s the epicenter of the American Dream in the 21st century.

At least that’s what I’ve learned from watching “The Social Network” and skimming George Packer’s recent article in The New Yorker.

The truth is, I’m a stranger in a strange land. (Yes, that was one of those literary references to Robert A. Heinlein. For those who hooted in derision earlier in the piece, he was a famous writer. No, there’s no app for that. You have to actually read a book.) Our startup is an outlier. We’re not a tech site. We’re not engineers or computer wizards. In fact, I almost flunked computer programming at Whitman College, where I studied political science, sociology, and psychology. We’re a curation site, one that will be built by human beings exercising journalistic chops, good taste, and good judgment.

I know. It’s a freaky concept. Man vs. machine. Hopefully man will win.

But I’m hell-bent on slashing through the layers of entrepreneurial bureaucracy and presenting our plans to the relatively small number of VC partners and firms that might be receptive to a media/consumer Internet/publishing venture. Right now, I’m wrestling with the protocol and etiquette of the Introduction Game, a necessary evil for both venture capital firms and startup founders. If Reid Hoffman, Ron Conway, or Marc Andreessen reads this and wants to chat, I’ll bust out my lone remaining credit card, with its ridiculously high interest rate, and spring for coffee, as long as you stay away from Frappuccinos and stick with basic Starbucks coffee. Or better yet, we can go to Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll even buy you a glazed donut.

On the good news front, I found out that WalMart phased out its greeters in 2012. Whew! Dodged that bullet.

Image: ramblingbeachcat