Letter From Silicon Valley

"What separates us from other competitors is passion." -- CEO of a now-defunct online natural-products retailer, October 1999

"I have learned from those mistakes, and I am passionate about the need for campaign-finance reform." -- Al Gore, speaking about campaign-finance legislation, March 2000

"I am passionate about delivering B2B E-commerce solutions to my clients." -- Web consultant who once dated my friend Ellen, December 2000

Passion. A lot of people have been throwing that word around the past few years, and not all of them live in Silicon Valley. Needless to say, the three passionate gentlemen quoted above were all looking for new objects of affection in 2001.

So I was skeptical when I received an E-mail from Jim Leff telling me about his community Web site for food lovers, Chowhound.com. The E-mail included a review from the Boston Phoenix newspaper that said that Chowhound exhibited "a burning passion rarely seen outside of the Middle East or the Napster controversy." Jim was writing to say that he enjoyed my column and that my references to sushi, sand dabs, and other seafood consumed at various milestones in the history of my former company, Gazooba, made him think I might be a closet chowhound. Jim also noted that we played the same musical instrument. "I have really clever and ambitious biz plans but could use some trombone-brotherhood commiseration," he wrote.

Since I was heading to Long Island to see my family at the time, I cleared one afternoon to meet with Jim, who lives in Queens. Before leaving San Francisco, I visited the Chowhound site ( www.chowhound.com), where I learned the difference between a chowhound and a foodie. As Jim had suspected, the chowhound label fit me like a lobster bib. "Foodies fuss endlessly about ingredients, a fixation which strikes chowhounds as sheer culinary materialism," the site explained. "Chowhounds can be spotted at Lespinasse insouciantly swirling their merlot but, unlike foodies, we have not the slightest compunction about stopping for a really great slice on the way home."

We met in Manhattan, and over large bowls of Korean beef soup, Jim told me that he wanted to make money from the site and was growing desperate for either a bright idea that would pull in revenues or an investor with deep pockets. Chowhound was attracting about 16,000 regulars worldwide (plus another 100,000 occasional visitors), and Jim was shelling out $600 a month for Web hosting. He was funding the payments and his apartment rent with money he was making as a food writer and jazz trombonist.

Jim said that when he founded Chowhound with a tech-savvy buddy, in 1996, a revenue model was the furthest thing from his mind. Already a professional food writer, Jim knew there were others who wanted to pool grassroots restaurant knowledge rather than rely solely on professional critics or Zagat. "For years I had met fellow chowhounds in furtive circumstances, whispering tips at bagel counters," Jim said. Now, in the spring of 2001, just when the Web was at its least welcoming, he wanted to turn his hobby into a business.

Jim was hopeful about an upcoming trip to San Francisco, and not just because he'd be able to score his favorite potato chips at La Palma Mexicatessan in the Mission. A Chowhound regular who also happened to be a recent hire at a famous Silicon Valley law firm had signed up Chowhound as his first client, then egged Jim on to create a business plan and get venture capital. Another Bay Area fan was offering to write the business plan, and two chowhound rock-star programmers were going to "semidonate" their services.

With the Nasdaq in tatters, I was doubtful about Chowhound's ability to do an equity round, but Jim remained confident. "Andy, I know you're connected enough to know that there's about to be a huge wave of investment in consumer-oriented content sites," he told me. I wasn't sure whether he was kidding or whether I was just really unconnected.

Jim flew out here a few weeks later. He reserved a banquet table at R&G Lounge, his favorite Cantonese place in San Francisco, renowned for its chicken, and invited 10 people who had offered to help, guide, support, counsel, and connect him. The woman who had volunteered to help with the business plan was there and turned out to be a fellow Wharton alum whom I had met once at a party. Other entrepreneurs who were present were either chowhounds or friends of chowhounds.

The chicken was everything Jim had promised. And things were so bad on the dot-com scene that nobody wanted to talk about anything except the food. Some of my fellow diners had been laid off or were about to be. No one was encouraging about the possibility of Chowhound's getting funded. For Jim, his guests' frankness was a harsh-tasting morsel he was loath to swallow. "As anybody will say, the hardest thing in business is when you're in relentless mode," Jim explained later. "You're pursuing an end in spite of everything, and people are saying it can't be done. I'm thinking of those Japanese guys in the jungle thinking they're fighting World War II in 1975. Now I understand those guys so well. It doesn't just switch off."

Later, over beers, I did my best to drag Jim out of the jungle. I told him that venture money might not be the best thing for Chowhound anyway. I recounted the time at Gazooba when our VCs rejected a buyout offer that they had deemed insufficient. "They want a home run, a billion-dollar company, and they want it quickly," I said. "They're OK if 9 out of their 10 companies strike out trying to get there." Jim dreamed of building Chowhound into an international brand for restaurant and food information, but I suggested he throttle back. He finally allowed that if he put a business plan together, he could probably round up a few hundred thousand in angel money, enough to hire some people and print Chowhound-branded restaurant guides. Jim seemed deflated but thankful for the straight talk.

When I checked in with Jim again a few months later, he was still using trombone and freelance-writing money to pay Chowhound's bills -- now $800 a month to support 20,000 regular users and 3 million page views. One minor bit of progress was that he had identified a personal weakness of his that was impeding any major bits of progress where the site was concerned.

"Here's the deal, Andy," said Jim. "I hate asking for money, and I'm bad at it. I'm proud of what I did with the site. But I'm like one of those weight lifters who forgot to work on his legs. I can't spend the next six months of my life just schmoozing investors and trying to get checks from them. It's just not what I do."

Like a battle-scarred soldier watching a new recruit struggling in the field, I want to help Jim write his business plan. But if and when Jim wants help, he'll ask for it. Meanwhile, a generous chowhound has offered to front him a couple thousand dollars to produce Chowhound merchandise, which Jim hopes will recoup the $18,000 he's spent on the site so far. Chowhound buttons will read, "No, I would NOT like some freshly ground black pepper on that." And Chowhound "passports," with sayings such as "Thai equals spicy, spicy equals Thai. I love spicy real Thai food!" written in 10 languages, for example, will let the waiter know that "you mean business and want the real shit," says Jim.

Jim was also working on the pilot episode of a Chowhound television show. "It's going to be a game show for savvy diners, sort of a reality-TV thing," he says. He plans to shop the show around to cable networks and hopes the exposure will do for the Chowhound brand what he once thought a big investment would.

"My model, strangely enough, is Martha Stewart," Jim says. "We are the anti-Martha Stewart in terms of what our content is and who our audience is. But the business model is the same. Get people who are disenfranchised -- who have never had a voice in the media speaking to them -- make them superloyal, and give them content across all media. It's about focusing this community of people who are always tirelessly searching for something better. And the only reason it works is because I'm one of those people."

Time will tell if Chowhound will make it as a business. If it does, look no further than Jim Leff's passion for the reason why. I told him to keep in touch and mentioned that I'd be in New York soon. Could we get together and catch up on how things were progressing?

"Yeah, we could do that," Jim said. "But will you have time to eat?"

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.) and a contributing writer for Inc. He will drive a long way for good fatty tuna.

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