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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

Patricia B McConnell: For The Love Of A Dog.

Pema Chodron: The Places That Scare You

Daniel Wallace: Mr Sebastian & the Negro Magician

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Tuesday, August 15, 2000

LA Unconfidential #11

L.A. Unconfidential, #11
August 15, 2000

A week ago, we released the new version of our site. It’s up. I’ve still got more complaints than plaudits for what’s there, but I’m no longer embarrassed by it. Thank goodness. I was getting tired of blushing and shuffling my feet every time someone asked, “So, what’s your URL?” My excuse that www.naturalhealthlink.com was just a “bullshit beta site” had long worn thin.

In the tradition of the web, my top priority over the last couple of months was to get the site’s look right. Functionality is someone else’s problem, but the interface and content are mine. Content is a bottomless bucket to fill no matter when you start. But even great content can’t sell a crappy interface. In a perfect world of unlimited access to talented people, you’d fix both simultaneously. Regardless of what you hear in the news about “market corrections” and pink slips at the dot-coms, however, the labor market here is still frustratingly tight. So, my team of three people and a dog named Sadie started with the makeover while I got busy in the background lining up some content deals.

It’s always funny how, when you’re working hard to get all the big stuff right, you screw up some astonishingly high-profile little stuff. The new look and feel of the website is great. I love the job my team has done. (The only credit I can take is for having had the appropriate amount of faith in them and waving my hands a lot.) They’ve pegged exactly the right visual tone straddling what consumers want and what healthcare professionals—our customers—demand. But, even at the best of times, my team’s access to copy-editors is limited.

Copy-editors are the supremely talented and under-appreciated folks who make sure that sentences make sense, verbs agree with nouns and, in articles on digestion, keep you from writing “masturbate” when you mean “masticate”. So, given that we were pressed for time, working with marginal free-lance copy-editors half a world away, perhaps we can be forgiven for spelling the CEO’s name wrong on the new site. That wouldn’t have been so bad, really, if his wife hadn’t spotted a typo in his name on his business card a week earlier.

The good news is that folks who don’t know us seem to think we’re onto something. For all the egregious sins that focus groups have foisted on the world, you still wouldn’t want to get too far along in your business without asking a few folks if they’d buy your product. A couple of weeks before the new release of the site, we decided to see if it was worth the effort. I keenly accepted the challenge of being the guy behind the smoked, two-way mirror.

For those of you who haven’t had the odd experience of participating in a focus group, it goes like this. You get called by a telemarketer who offers you twenty-five bucks to show up and talk about a product, but they won’t tell you what it is. So, if you’re up for the adventure and the extra dosh, you rock up with a half-dozen or so equally uninformed compatriots. You’re given a Coke, and a seat in a room with a really, really big mirror. Then, before you’ve even fully formed the question in your head, the person running the group tells you, straight out, that people are watching you on the other side of that mirror, and recording everything you say. And then the strangest thing happens: you spill your guts about your most intimate and neurotic preferences regardless of how tangentially related they are to the brand of soap you’ve been asked about.

I’ve been in a couple of focus groups. It’s kinda fun hearing strangers talk passionately about the fine distinctions between deodorants. But this was the first time I got to be on the other side of the mirror. It turns out that not only is it more fun on the other side, there’s also much better food.

The upshot of the experience was that two groups of “average American healthcare consumers between the ages of 26 and 55” said they loved our site… at least the slightly futuristic version of it we presented. We, in turn, found out that the booth behind the mirror is at least sound-proof enough to contain the sounds of high-fives, stock-option-inspired whoops, and venture-capital funded sighs of “Oh, thank God.”

Even with these victories, the toll the business is taking on my life is still high. A close friend from university, Bill Bryson, just passed through L.A. on his band’s latest U.S. tour. They’re just back from a triumphant European tour in support of their new album, and neither had I ever heard them play, nor had I seen Bill in more than 10 years. It was the week before the new site release and I was so exhausted that I just didn’t have the stamina for the 11:30pm set at the downtown club. I showed for the sound-check, had some dinner with Bill, and went home to bed.

Spending so much time at work is bound to make you act out frustration in amusing ways. With a critical mass of Aussies in our office, however, some of the mischief-making leaves our Yank colleagues scratching their heads. The most recent example: a posting on one our site’s message boards from a user asking if there are any natural approaches to curing aquaphobia.

The user’s name: H. Holt.

Cheers. --h