Monday, October 25, 2010
Interview with Kevin O'Connor, FindTheBest.com
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Kevin O'Connor is the co-founder of DoubleClick, which he took from startup to IPO on the Nasdaq in 1998, sold it to private equity firm Hellman & Friedman for around $1.2 billion in 2005, and finally sold again to Google in 2007 for $3.1 billion. After DoubleClick, Kevin eventually settled down in Santa Barbara, which is where his newest startup--FindTheBest.com (www.findthebest.com) is headquartered. We caught up with Kevin to hear what FindTheBest is all about, and why he decided to get back into the startup game.
What's FindTheBest all about?
Kevin O'Connor: We're an objective comparison engine for the more complex products and services. Another way to think of it is we're a Kayak for the thousands of things in life that you need to make decisions for. Examples of that are if you're looking for a credit card, looking for antivirus software, or summer camp for the kids, or colleges. It's really all the things you need that are considered purchases.
How'd you decide to start FindTheBest?
Kevin O'Connor: I kept running into the same problem over and over as I was looking for products. For example, I was looking for web hosting, and kept on running into affiliate shills--which is a disease on the internet--where there are people who purport to talk about the best products, but are really pushing whoever is paying them the most money. I'm sure you've seen them all over. As I was looking for products, I was compiling massive amounts of information, which I'd gathered looking for ski resorts, a private school for our kid, cities to live in, credit cards, web hosting companies, and so on. I kept running into this problem. I had been using Kayak.com, which I thought was brilliant. They make it really simple to do travel comparisons. I said, okay, why don't we take a similar user interface, and apply that over a broad spectrum of things? Today, we've now done it for over 400 different areas.
You did pretty well at DoubleClick, and have been doing investments--why did you decide to get back into the game on the operational side?
Kevin O'Connor: I've been really fortunate in life, in that I love technology, and love solving problems. As much as I ever got paid and became successful, it was just an added bonus. I've been a tinkerer all my life. I spent the last six to seven years looking to find the big problem that hasn't been addressed adequately on the Internet. It was tough. There has been hundreds of billions of dollars spend on the Internet over the last fifteen years, and trying to find that problem took some time. I needed something that could really jazz me up, a sufficiently big problem, something which would be really interesting and difficult to solve.
What do people find the most useful about your service?
Kevin O'Connor: We have a phenomenal amount of data, and the way it is organized. Most of the comparison apps that we do are human curated. There are a lot of people trying to do this in an automated way, by scraping and crawling the Internet, and you just can't do it. You've got to deal with lots of complicated problems. For example, when you go to make a decision on what ski resort to visit, you've got to determine what are the most important factors. We had to go to 1200 ski resort sites to gather data in a consistent format, so that people could do a good comparison. Another example is in credit cards, where credit card firms don't want to give apples-to-apples comparisons: they want to give you apples to grapefruits, or grapefruits to trees. They don't want to normalize their format. So, that's where we spend lots of our time. It's how do we make a decision, and how can we present that in the most useful and objective way. Objective is the key. We're really focused on the consumer, unlike lots of people who are just focused on being affiliate shills, and are focused on driving revenue by purporting to provide people with trusted information. The old joke on the Internet is that no one knows I'm a dog. It's a question of who do you trust on the internet? We've taken a system of ratings, using expert ratings and trusted sources, and pulling that into a single rating system.
What's the business model here?
Kevin O'Connor: One thing I learned about at DoubleClick, which was very clear. There is a marketing funnel, and the closer you can get to an actual purchase, the more valuable your real estate is. When people are comparing products, they've really raised their hands and said they're really interested in a product and are in the final stages of buying. Although we're not going to be focused on revenues for a year, it's clear at this time that this kind of real estate is very valuable for advertisers. You'll see our sponsorships like those of Google--they'll be very clearly stated, and we won't be biased by advertisers. But, advertisers will know you've got to be where people are comparing products.
How is the firm funded?
Kevin O'Connor: Right now, it's funded by all three of the founders. We've all done well from startups in the past.
I imagine that prior success gives you a great deal more flexibility in how you develop this?
Kevin O'Connor: Yes, we are doing this very old school. It's out of my garage, we're all working for free, and we're scrapping and scraping like we used to do. That's allowed us to get a lot accomplished over the last year with the product, without spending all that much money, and spending smart.
Finally, what's the next steps for you at FindTheBest?
Kevin O'Connor: We're building on the technology, and we've got some really cool stuff coming. The other thing we are doing, is building out our comparison apps. We'd love to have your readers give us suggestions on what they'd like to see. We've got 400 comparison applications now, and are hoping to take that up to 800 to 1000 comparison apps. If you want to buy something, we want you to FindTheBest.
Thanks, and good luck!