Opinion & Analysis
Herb Malkowitz adjusted his regulation grunge hoodie and faded Chuck Taylor sneakers as he strode into the Heavo! building.
OPINION: Today was an important meeting with the famously mercurial Heavo! chief executive Jack Twitt.
The 60-something woman on reception said he looked a little like Kurt Cobain, as she buzzed him through reception and into the executive lift. Herb didn't know who Cobain was, but figured he was likely to be one of the new guys in their huge web spidering team, whose job it was to track every Heavo! user even when they weren't on Heavo! websites.
"Tracking and spidering", or following the web journey of every person who used any one of the 200+ Heavo! websites, was a key strategy as it passed both Google and Facebook four years ago, back in 2016. The big leap was not just selling personal data that people chose to make available, but selling the vastly more useful personal data they didn't know had been captured.
The other big thing was coming up with an online offering that merged search with social media and payments.
Being able to search for stuff not just from the objective algorithm results of traditional search engines, but also from the results of friends and family, as well as the content of photographs, had proved to be a quantum leap forward. And the "one-click payment" built into every Heavo! site reduced the friction of reaching for your wallet.
Herb had chosen his Brin2020 electric car after his golfing buddies recommended it, and others with girlfriends that his Heavo!Dating profile found "hot" also drove them. He didn't think it weird that he had been offered the car at a killer price in his Heavo!Mail just after he had emailed a college bud moaning that he hadn't been laid for a year.
The lift dinged and the doors opened on the top floor. Heavo! supremo Jack was belittling a group of designers about how ugly their mockups were: "Get the hell out of here and come back with something that doesn't make me want to pluck my eyes out," Jack admonished the designers as they fled the boardroom.
He saw his strategy vice-president: "Herb, great to see you. Those latest government numbers are looking good."
Herb had to agree. After seeing the likes of Facebook, AOL and Google spend millions on lawyers and complicated routeing to avoid having to respond to government requests for information or to prove they were meeting income tax and privacy requirements, Heavo! took a smarter approach.
Because it was able to trace a person from birth to death, Heavo! could deliver more precise behavioural data than the best planners and statisticians in the public sector. It was also well- endowed to help regulators such as the Internal Revenue Service and FBI, and developed an application programming interface which it supplied to the government, on commercial terms, of course. Now the government was one of Heavo!'s biggest clients.
"What's this about, then?" asked Jack. "More trouble with the Securities and Exchange Commission?"
Although it had a sizeable market capitalisation on the the New York Stock Exchange, Heavo! had a strained relationship with the SEC. Much of this related to the way that Heavo! had listed with much pre-IPO hype at $100 a share, then dropped like a stone to less than $40 within five months (at which stage many Heavo! executives and a bunch of private equity firms bought in as a sign of "good faith"). You'd think given it was now trading at $400 a share, they'd be happy.
"No Jack, it's about a new entrant," Herb said.
"New entrants pop up all the time. Who is it this time? Bill Gates back from the retirement home? Some Zuckerberg prodigy with an open source complex? Or has Mary Meeker actually built something instead of criticising others?"
Herb sighed. "No, Jack, it's basically a girl in a garage who's built a system like ours that combines search, social and payments. But unlike ours it doesn't harvest or exploit personal information, and it isn't underwritten by the advertising industry. Oh, and instead of running its own bespoke credit card system, it delivers direct bank-to-bank transfers at no charge."
Jack shakes his head and hoots with laughter. "Who the heck would sign up to that? Sounds like an absolute lemon. I wouldn't trust it to wipe its own nose."
"That's the thing Jack, people do trust it," said Herb. "And they don't trust us. The analytics team has done the forecast and it's looking pretty good. And the qualitative research folk have confirmed that our brand has been overtaken by John Banks on the Most Trusted List."
Visibly shaken, Jack asked: "Well, what are we going to do about it then?"
"Actually, Jack we've done it already. The board has asked me to let you know you're no longer chief executive.
"The good news is that we've got a few new positions opening up that might interest you, in our member privacy team."
Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an ecommerce manager, professional director and author. He's always secretly wanted to be called Herb.