Sunday, September 29, 2013

You Pay For What You Get

This column is why people hate the media. It started innocently—I met a Freebie employee taking a Divvy bike out of the dock at the Mart. Of course I was interested in writing about Freebie.   Everybody wants to be present at the creation, and with fortunes being made in the tech world, nothing seems more exciting than to be working at a start-up. My idea was to see what the company's about, and I sat down with the founders. We had a fun talk—smart guys, going places—but Friday, as I was writing the column, I thought: I better try this thing, see if it works. The experience at the restaurant wasn't bad, but there was a gap between the aloof reception I received trying to cash in my Freebie, and the enthusiasm after I revealed myself as writing for the paper. Maybe I'm an unusual customer—maybe the average person would love a free lunch, even delivered with a bit of chill and followed by a Twitter blast disguised as a personal message. Still, I felt bad for ending on such a down note—I go in all glad-handy to write about the company, and end up sneering at them. I had to fight the urge to phone Ben Rosenfield Friday afternoon and apologize—it's nothing personal, it's just business, and my responsibility is to the readers, not to you—but thought better of it, and figured, maybe he knows that all publicity is good publicity. And indeed he did, emailing me a friendly note after the story ran—this is the first article ever written about his company, he said, and they appreciate it. Which was a relief, to me, and a good sign for his future. It takes a tough hide to get ahead in any business.

     What is money, anyway? A unit of worth, printed on paper or tallied in electrons, given in return for something: your time working, usually.
     You can earn money in other ways. Interest on a loan. Selling something you’ve made. If you’re a celebrity, you can sell your endorsement. Michael Jordan sold his image to Nike for millions, allowing Nike to sell shoes for more than it would otherwise get because their sneakers came coated in the invisible aura of fame and victory linked with Jordan.
     Thanks to social media — Facebook, Twitter, et al — we are all stars of our own little or, in some cases, not-so-little universes. As with real celebrities, there will be chances to cash in on our popularity, the latest being a fresh-from-the-box Chicago startup called Freebie.
     “Everybody’s social connectivity has value,” said Ben Rosenfield, who founded the company in February. “What we do, is we’ve figured out how to automate word of mouth, the most powerful form of marketing. We’re a lead generator.”
     "Allow the product to market itself," added Hank Ostholthoff, the co-founder, at their Aqua Tower headquarters. "How many times do you hear businesses say, 'If I could only get somebody to try my product.' "
     Chicago is home to a miniboomlet of tech startups, the most famous being Groupon, another lead generator, offering a small bribe—$20 worth of pizza, say, for $10—to lure new customers through the door.
     Freebie thinks it has a better idea, first because you get stuff, not cheap, but free.
     "We believe discounts are bad," Rosenfield said. Those who get discounts expect them in the future, while no one given a free meal expects all their meals to be free. "That's against the psychology."
     Another advantage of Freebie is that while anyone with cash can buy a Groupon, even—shudder—old people with scant social media presence, Freebie is based on a person's social media popularity.
     Freebie takes the measure of just how big a ripple you make on online media, gives a rating based on who your friends are, then uses its mobile app to nudge you toward businesses that want people such as you.
     Rosenfield, 33, a Deerfield native, said the challenge for marketers in our media-saturated world is to find new ways of reaching customers. TV isn't working.
     "We know, we're all fast-forwarding through commercials, and no one's . . ." Here Rosenfield caught himself, showing surprising tact for one so young, and changed direction midsentence, ". . . and unfortunately less people are reading the newspaper to decide what they're going to buy. They're looking at the Internet."
     Alas, true. What Freebie is doing is taking the old invite-the-press-in-and-feed-'em-in-return-for-hype dynamic and democratizing it to regular folk, who can cash out their connectivity. If it works, maybe you didn't waste all that time on Facebook after all.
     A test seemed in order. I downloaded the Freebie app to my phone, giving it access to my Facebook and Twitter (something I wouldn't usually do, but this is work). It told me what my social media footprint is worth. Having posted on Facebook for five years with the plangent urgency of a lost baby opossum crying for its mother, and tweeting continuously, earned me a 477; enough, I was told, for a "Small Plate" at the Hubbard Inn.
     That's it? But free's free, right? I toddled off to the Hubbard Inn, which I had never heard of, and why would I? It's right next door to the excellent Slurping Turtle, which has served me many a steaming bowlful of fine chow that I was all too happy to pay for.
     At the Hubbard Inn—and this is the weak link in the system—I tapped my app telling Freebie I was here (prompting it to automatically inform all my friends, unbidden). I showed the phone to poor Tammi, the hostess, a week on the job. "I never heard of it," she said. "I just know how to seat people." She appealed to Jason Felsenthal, director of operations, at a booth. He did not leap up, emitting a Zorba-like cry of joy, and embrace me as a new customer. Rather, he took a menu with the grimness of man being robbed and ticked off the three small plates I was entitled to. The house-made ravioli. The chickpea crepe. The mussels.
     For all the eulogies being said over the pulpy media, Felsenthal certainly perked up when I identified myself and asked him whether Freebie is working out for him.
     "It's a pretty interesting app," he said. Is it driving in business? "Time will tell."


  1. Always wishing local start ups well (we need 'em), but I also would not want auto-Tweets going out in my name. Just a glitch, perhaps, that can be tweaked, as the Cool Kids say. LOVE the photo! DANG I dig old painted signs like that, especially local. Old neon signs, too.

  2. I can't even stand using GroupOn because of the obnoxious attitude by many business owners to chose using them. Restaurants especially tend to be really really bad about this. You would think a gun was to there head when they agreed to participate.

  3. I used to not agree much with J. Jackson in regards to his column. Since Trump got elected, JJ makes sense. And not sure why any woman less than 70 would vote Republican? Stepford mindset I guess.


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