PATHFINDER GETS PERSONAL

The Memoir

(This is chapter 15 of my ongoing memoir of the Internet industry.)

We had a bruising 1995 in the Pathfinder.com basement, and rumors began to spread that Time Warner would shutter the whole operation if we didn't come up with a big victory in 1996. Pathfinder Personal Edition was the project our top management came up with to save us.

The concept was ahead of its time: you would pay $4.95 a month (or $29.95 a year), enter your interests and personal information into a web form, and begin to receive a customized personal web experience. News you are interested in. Scores from your favorite teams. Entertainment options in your town or city.

There was one big problem: the information wasn't there. Pathfinder was originally built to leverage the strengths of Time Inc.'s magazines, but these were general-audience weeklies and monthlies. Maybe a national consortium of local daily newspapers could have provided the steady flow of precision-guided individualized information Personal Edition needed to be successful, but the combined editorial offerings of Time, People, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, Life, Money, Entertainment Weekly, InStyle and Vibe did not add up to any kind of robust information flow.

If a person lived in Frewsburg, New York, was a fan of the Buffalo Bills and the Buffalo Sabres and was interested in health, national politics and gardening, a personalized web extract of the Time Inc. magazines could offer them:

  • Nothing at all about Frewsburg, New York
  • Maybe one Sports Illustrated article every three months about the Buffalo Bills or the Buffalo Sabres
  • The same articles from Time about national politics that they could get for free at Pathfinder.com
  • A couple of short articles a month about health that were also available for free at Pathfinder.com
  • Nothing about gardening

So the entire user experience was guaranteed to be an empty one. We attempted to solve this problem by signing up news feeds from outside sources, allowing us to present timely headlines about gardening or the Buffalo Sabres or the weather in Frewsburg, New York. But these news feeds amounted to impersonal information blips. The feed data was also freely available from multiple sources, and the fact that it wasn't Time Inc. content undercut our plan to promote Personal Edition on the basis of our industry-leading magazines.

Pathfinder had gone all-in on the Personal Edition project, had committed to a highly visible November 1996 launch, and hired a top marketing executive named Marie Blue to promote Personal Edition through the roof as the hottest thing that would happen on the Internet all year. This was a hard case to make as the Web continued its wild growth, as Amazon.com continued to prove the effectiveness of a strong e-commerce strategy, as Yahoo followed Netscape's lead with a successful initial public stock offering. That was the kind of splash we needed to make with Personal Edition.

Time Warner had once had the chance to acquire Yahoo and merge it with Pathfinder. But we were always terrible at choosing partners, and we proved this again when we signed a laughable advance deal with the once-popular dial-up service Compuserve that would allow their users to access Personal Edition as part of a paid package. This partnership was laughable because Compuserve had recently been getting its ass completely kicked in the dial-up service wars by America Online. Their industry reputation was nearly as bad as Pathfinder's.

We also came up with a plan to couple Personal Edition with a new and supposedly innovative "push technology" concept. Personal Edition would download each day's links at night, so they'd be ready in the morning. This was supposed to help people with slow connections, but it actually made no sense because people with slow connections were modem dial-up users, and modem dial-up users couldn't use this nightly-download service unless they left their phones connected to their computers all night. Once again: we aimed high, and the results were lame. The whole Pathfinder pitch added up to something very clearly unappealing. You could spot the "lame" a block away.

Over in the tech basement, we handled our concerns about the upcoming launch of Personal Edition with a primitive method: denial. The fact that it sucked was the fact nobody was supposed to mention. We'd see demos at meetings, and would try to buck each other up with "looks great!" "so exciting!" "I'm going to buy an account for my grandmother!". You could see on the faces that nobody believed it, but November was coming and the thing was going to launch, so we kept our heads down and worked.

I took Pathfinder's problems personally. I don't know exactly why this is, but I really wanted my company to be a success, and I cared about it more than many of my literary or non-corporate-employed friends understood.

Sure, I was supposedly an "indie" kind of guy, and had no love in theory for massive entertainment conglomerates. But I had come to develop a family feeling about Time Warner. I don't know if it's a rational tendency, but it's a universal one -- if you live in Queens, New York, you're going to become a Mets fan, and if you work for a company, you're going to want that company to succeed.

I felt I was doing my part, because the advertising technology situation was in pretty good shape by the fall of 1996. We had to deal with constant problems involving our NetGravity ad server, and I had to develop a homegrown database reporting system from scratch (because NetGravity didn't have one yet). But this is the kind of work I enjoy doing (and it's the kind of work I can do alone). When Eduardo and I launched the reporting system to the ad team, we downloaded a high-res outer space image from the Mars Pathfinder and used it as our screen background. Everybody who saw the app agreed that it was one of the few cool things Pathfinder had managed to build. The ad sales team was happy with my work, and I knew Time Inc. New Media approved of me when I got a nice annual raise and -- surprise -- my own office (shared with Mike Stoeckel). That was unexpected and sweet.

We had a large and growing application development team of young smart people -- Larne Pekowsky, Mattison Navramore, Tom Snee, Gautum Guliani, Marc Ochs (who was actually related to folksinger Phil Ochs), Peter Kamali -- whose talents were largely wasted on pointless and technically complex editorial projects. It was depressing to see us flop, over and over.

We launched a bad "downtown" web soap opera called "East Village" that was completely incongruous with the square Pathfinder image. We delivered an endless stream of clunky polls and games and quizzes that crashed our web servers whenever they felt like it. We screwed up everything we tried to do.

One day our publicist did a big press release about our new celebrity chat service and its initial guest star, Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs. They invited in a TV news camera team, and they wanted a big crowd to "make it seem like an event". Since the chat would take place in our basement studio and many of us techies liked 10,000 Maniacs, a large group of us stayed late after work to stand in the studio and watch the chat.

However, nobody had told Natalie Merchant about this, and when she arrived with her entourage and found herself gaped at by a roomful of C++ programmers, SQL developers and Unix administrators. she became struck by a shyness attack and went through the entire chat in a painfully nervous and self-conscious state. She never loosened up, her answers were stiff and at one point she said "can everybody go home?". After the ordeal ended and we all packed up to leave I found myself alone on an escalator with Natalie and her entourage. I heard her say to her friends, "next time remind me to go to the toilet before I do a chat".

Our projects were often developed under hysterical working conditions and without organized project plans, and I hated the way the eager young techies on the tech team would allow the editorial project managers to ensnare them in vain pursuits that would leave them feeling strung out, wrung out, used and abused. Few projects ever launched without tears and agony. Every once in a while, the editors would say "thanks" to their sorry techies, writhing and crying on the floor.

All our projects were failure-prone, but Personal Edition was a monster unlike any other project we'd ever done. Our very capable application development manager Dan Woods came into my office several times to ask questions about database scalability and performance tuning. He told me that we would need to process a million credit card transactions on a typical day, and up to hundred thousand transactions an hour when they "opened the gates" on November 18. A hundred thousand an hour. Dan and I were friends, so I told him honestly that I did not believe for a minute that Pathfinder Personal Edition would ever need to process a hundred thousand credit card transactions an hour, because Pathfinder Personal Edition was going to be a gigantic flop.

I learned a hard lesson from this situation, though: you don't gain much by handling your own workload well in a department where everybody around you is flailing in crisis mode. I began to take on a very superior and arrogant attitude towards the Personal Edition development team, to the point of openly laughing at them for working long weekends and hours. At this point, I had a hostile relationship with several members of the core social "clique" among the techies, and I had stopped joining the group for drinks or parties. I felt ostracized and disliked, though when I look back now, I realize I was often the one to blame, because I did have a very arrogant attitude. But I didn't realize this at the time, and I often felt bitter and miserable about going to work.

This made it hard to be happy at all, though I felt I should be happy. I felt constantly overloaded, and struggled to maintain my composure often during each day.

Mornings were the best part of every day, because I'd sit on the floor with my kids and drink coffee and eat blueberry granola while reading the New York Times as Elizabeth tore through her closet in a clothing crisis and Daniel and Abby watched "Thomas the Tank Engine". I also enjoyed my morning shower, because I had Ed Lover and Doctor Dre's hiphop morning show on Hot 97. The shower radio helped keep me sane during these years.

Being at work -- even in my cushy office -- just felt crummy. Everybody around me was tense and unhappy, and I caught the vibe. I liked to keep my door closed, even though this was considered anti-social. (Another reason I liked to keep my door closed is that I was often working on BobDylan.com, or the literary web anthology, or Literary Kicks).

Just as I always had when I worked on Wall Street, I took long lunch hours. Midtown Manhattan has great delis with great hot food bars, so lunch hour was usually happy time for me. I mostly frequented Ranch 1 Grill, the Metro Cafe Deli or Smiler's Deli. Sometimes I wandered up to a place on West 55th Street where you have to stand in a long line to get amazing soups. I never heard about the shrimp bisque, but my favorite was mulligatawny, the best mulligatawny I ever had. It had green grapes and cashews in it, because that's the kind of creative work this soup man did. I was pleased and surprised one night when Al Yegenah of the Soup Kitchen on 55th Street was suddenly immortalized in a great episode of Seinfeld.

Pathfinder Personal Edition launched, as threatened, on November 18, which happened to be my 35th birthday. We all wondered if we were going to be flooded with "a hundred thousand credit card transactions" in our first hour, as our tech requirements document had predicted. The first hour rolled past, and word trickled in about the numbers. "It's not looking too good," Oliver said quietly, emerging from his office quickly before turning to go back in.

"How not good?"

"Just not good."

"Thousands not good?" we asked. "Hundreds not good? Single digits not good?"

"Just not good."

It's a sign of how bad Personal Edition was that even our forced press placements couldn't work up any praise. Entertainment Weekly greeted the launch with a review of the offering:

Extra, extra, download all about it: Online news pages designed specially for you can blend TV immediacy with print-media depth, all filtered for your reading comfort. Just visit the site of your choice, fill out a form detailing your interests, and voila -- the straight dope on the fast-breaking subjects you crave. In theory, at least, it's as simple as plucking your favorite section out of the Sunday paper.

But are these news filters a genuine solution or just the gimmick du jour? The concept is still in its infancy, so it may be too soon to tell. Says Dan Woods, director of editorial technology at Time Inc.'s New Media -- and a subscriber to a half dozen personalized news services, ''These are the first cars.'' With that in mind, let's take a few news jalopies for a spin.

Pathfinder Personal Edition (www.pathfinder.com), subscription: $4.95/month. Brand-name appeal — in the form of Time Inc.'s pantheon of magazines (which includes EW) — is the distinguishing characteristic of this pay site. However, the interface is unwieldy, and even subscribing can be an ordeal.

The only reason Entertainment Weekly reviewed it at all was that it was a Time Inc. publication.

A few days after the launch, there was a press conference about Personal Edition in our basement studio. I wandered into the crowd at the after-event reception to see the faces, and spotted Jerry Levin, the CEO of Time Warner -- he looked smaller than I'd imagined -- among the expensively dressed suits.

This was the only time I ever got a close-up look at Jerry Levin, who was in the 1990s pretty much the ace of spades in the media moguls card deck. He'd once created HBO, then successfully surfed the wave of the Time Warner merger. Martha Stewart worked for Jerry Levin, and so did Ted Turner. The guy was big.

I sauntered over to where Jerry Levin stood and noticed that he looked very angry. I'd seen photos of him and he usually smiled, but now he looked angry. Whatever he'd seen at this press presentation did not please him.

It was a whole year ago that Levin's second-in-command Don Logan had slipped it to the New York Times that Time Warner management saw Pathfinder as a financial "black hole".

It wasn't until I saw Jerry Levin's face at that press conference that I fully believed it.

This article is part of the series The Memoir. The next post in the series is MOVING TARGET. The previous post in the series is DISCONNECT.
7 Responses to "PATHFINDER GETS PERSONAL"

by Duncan Brown on

I was thinking you'd go through this blurb without mentioning Bob Dylan.

Easier said than easier done. He's like Shakespeare, gets everywhere without trying.
One of the major challenges of contemporary cultural writing involves negotiating the technical maze of modern literature whilst outmanouevering the minotaur presence of Bob and Will.

They make Ariadne's of us all

I assume you're employing hyperbole when you say the techies were "writhing and crying on the floor" but can you clarify a bit more as to what they were going through as far as stress and so forth?

by TKG on

If you go to www.pathfinder.com, it is still "there" in that it is a page with links to 19 Time publications, Time among them. It calls time the leading "brand" in news.

Brand? News brand? News isn't a brand. This is nonsense and a major problem that existed also back in the day of your story -- Time simply isn't very good or interesting. In fact it's flat out lousy.

For example follow the link today at pathfinder and see what Time THE LEADING BRAND in news has as a feature story -- the 100 most influential people IN THE WORLD!!!!!!!!!!!! (WoW!)

So who comes up first?

Ted Kennedy?

This is a joke, right? No.

Henry Luce invented something a long time ago and a lot of people are feeding off its carcass to this day.

Brand?

No Soup For You. Next.

That's great, TKG!

Bill, thanks for helping me spot places where my story isn't clear (I will improve these parts in a later draft). The reason techies suffered so much at early web companies like Pathfinder is that everybody always underestimated how long things would take. It was common to estimate, say, two days for a project that would actually take four weeks to build. The techies often felt embarrassed or self-critical when they couldn't perform according to expectations, and would drive themselves crazy trying to meet impossible deadlines.

It was nobody's fault, really -- nobody understood the layers of complexity involved in running a database-driven editorial content management system. It's a problem orgazinations are still struggling with very much today.

Levi, that diagram showing how Pathfinder Personal Edition works is truly lame for a media company. When you saw that you should have been on the phone to a headhunter toot-sweet!

by mike on

yeah i heard a lot about pathfinder back then, it seemed to have mindshare. I never knew what it was, now I realize why.

Well how soon did you know this was a bust ? Or is it just in retrospect ?

by Ronald Gamber on

Anyone know of any archives from the old PF chats like the original chat café

Add new comment