Root Vaults, No More

2006-09-28 20:18 - General

(Note, take the content of this post with the appropriate grain of salt. Everything is true to the best of my knowledge/ability to make it so, but I might get some things wrong, and some might be my opinions.)

So, I started working for what became named Root Markets back on the 7th of July, 2005. I say became named because back then they were "IAG" and evolved the name as the business did, which tends to happen at startups.

It was based on a big idea about consumer data: your data is valuable and important. Today, companies fight for that data. Companies like comScore and Nielsen Netratings live and breathe it. Others, like Google and Amazon use it indirectly, but to significant profit. WHy should you, the consumer, generate such a valuable commodity, and then simply give it away for free? THe user should be in control of their own data!

The first thing we wanted to do to reach those ideals was begin to help you collect it all together, in one place. Early on, the vision was that eventually you would be able to store every detail about yourself: the websites you visit, the TV shows you watch, where you live, what you do, what medicine you take, your social security number, everything that you wanted to store. Then, with it all in one place, you could both leverage the central, massively linked, database of "you" as well as potentially sell your data, whether it be for literal dollars, or perhaps a special discount on goods and services. Basically, if you would allow marketers to know all this detail about you, you could participate in price discrimination to the utmost degree, in theory getting everything you buy for exactly the right price. The consumer would get the good deals, and the producer would get increased volume.

Like I said, though, that was the long term vision. In the near term, the company formed two parts. Initially, they were separate departments of the same company. After a lot of this and that, influenced by politics, investors, money and so on, it turned into two subsidiary companies of the parent company, Root Markets.

To get the company to the long term vision, we needed to make money in the short term. We aimed for that goal with another take on the "valuable consumer data" and "user in control" ideas. The data that we began working with was contact and financial data in the form of a mortgage lead. At the time, the mortgage lead market was filled with black-box aggregators and shady types. They'd do whatever they could to get the data, often from many disparate sources, and what they could to find anyone to buy the data. They operated with secret methods and formulas. Our idea was to be an open financial-style exchange of mortgage leads. A big goal was to securitize leads in much the same way that mortgages were securitized. We even got Lew Ranieri to join the company as an investor and board member. Read the link to see why that's a big deal.

What we were left with was two, branches let's say, of the company. The first, Root Exchange, was there to make the money and keep the business rolling. It interacted with consumers only indirectly, much like the Nasdaq deals indirectly with soy, it's the place where the commodoties are traded. The second, built on the same big ideas about consumers and their data, dealt with them very directly. That's the project that I worked on, Root Vaults.

The Vaults were built on top of a Firefox extension, owned by AttentionTrust, a non-profit organization that Root helped found, dedicated to furthering the cause of consumer's control over their data. This extension would watch the activity of your browser, and allow you to save, or transmit a record of that that activity to a service approved by AttentionTrust, pledging to uphold their principles about consumer data.

The Vaults were a place that you as a producer of attention data could store and analyze it. The first prototype version of the Vaults was released publicly on November 9th, 2005. I wrote the entire system, and it was little more thana proof of concept at that point. Soon afterwards, the new CTO organized the project to engineer the next version of the Vaults. Very soon, the Vaults team grew from one to six members, and progress was under way. The new design was robust where the old was rapid, enterprise scale instead of team-of-one scale. Unfortunately, bigger projects take longer to complete. External visibility and communication with upper management wasn't good enough, as far as I managed to figure out later. Command from on high kicked out the CTO managing the project and replaced him with a, let's say, more abrasive individual. The new rebuilding project was scrapped, and we reverted to the state of things as they had been in November. Two members of the team left shortly after that.

The old system was upgraded and extended. New features were introduced, and we had begun branching out from purely storing "history" data to other types. We made a major milestone release early in March, which was presented at the O'Reilly ETech conference. By then, the exchange team had been filled and began work. Deadlines were coming and going and progress was moving. As things got tight, two of the vaults team members were shifted to the exchange team, leaving two on the Vaults. This was one of the earliest points at which the company's preference for the Exchange product over the Vaults began to show. The former made money, the latter did not, and wasn't expected to for most likely years to come.

At the end of June, the big release came. The mortgage lead half of the business had kicked off with the acquisition of LeadFilter, but in June, we released the first version of our own product, the earlier-linked Root Exchange. Things were really happening. Early on, the sales team did some amazing work to keep up with the projected numbers, which even at first glance seemed far too optimistic to me. The projections grew too rapidly to keep up though, and soon the business was feeling a tight money squeeze.

Lining up further investment became difficult. The legitimate business, the Exchange, and the conceptual one, the Vaults, stood opposed. They were still technically part of the same company, and finding investors willing to have their money split between the two became difficult. I was told that there were investors interested in both sides individually, but not together. The idea of fully spinning the Vaults off into their own company, for funding, staffing and so on, was floated.

After just a couple months, profitability for the company remained no closer, and the board had had enough. A round of layoffs came crashing down, trimming off a hefty portion of the management of the company, and a good few other employees as well. Times were rough for me and my manager. We knew our project wasn't making any money, and I at least rather expected the belt to tighten it's first notch right around us.

Thing is, the Vaults were a very compelling idea. The founder Seth Goldstein managed to hold on to it. Spinoff for separate funding seemed more and more likely each day, but we weren't fired. I was told that some sort of bridge loan had been secured from the board, which would cover our department until the end of the year. In that time, Seth would secure independent financing and the Vaults project would thereupon be able to continue at its own pace, in its own direction.

This morning, I was told that the board decided not to provide that bridge loan. So there is no money to pay my salary, so my employment has been terminated. A long winded way to say that I've been canned, but there's the whole story, for interested parties.


Sorry to hear
2006-09-28 22:50 - RavenMind

about the loss of your job. Especially so soon after you moved. Don't worry though; somebody with your skills should be able to find work easily! :)

2006-09-29 07:46 - kathaclysm

Ya know, now that you've been canned & wrote up the whole thing, I finally kinda understand what you were doing.

Oh yea, and you forgot the best part: how you found out. "Why don't any of my passwords work any more?" Such a shame you had to find out that way.

Hopefully you can get the TV & net set-up in your new apartment soon!

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