Sramana Mitra: What was the business idea that you were playing with at that point?
Trevor Traina: The business became Compare.net.
Sramana Mitra: Comparative shopping online?
Trevor Traina: Exactly.
Sramana Mitra: What year are we talking about now?
Trevor Traina: 1996.
Sramana Mitra: What happened? How did that go?
Trevor Traina: At that time, all of the web tools were focused on price comparison. It was the era of the shopping box.
Those were all helpful if you already knew what you wanted to buy but I realized that most consumers hadn’t picked the product yet. If I could help them on the what-to-buy part, which was upstream, then I could control the where-to-buy part.
I focused all my efforts on building out a company that had complete databases and would allow a visitor to compare products feature by feature across many different features. At that time, that simple database didn’t exist. I hired a team and we took information from all manufacturers in whatever form they could give it to us—print, DVD, websites. We built our own databases that allowed us to normalize and standardize price comparison and feature comparison.
Sramana Mitra: Was this a venture-funded company?
Trevor Traina: Yes, we started out with money from friends and family. We went almost two years on that money. It did not go well. We thought that the brands would be our customers and that they would pay us to learn about the decisions and choices that consumers were making so they can make better features for their products. That hypothesis turned out to be inaccurate. We were making no money and we were at a point where I could only afford to pay rent, salary, and nothing else. Things looked very dire.
I had to decide whether I would push on or close the company down. That was my first big lesson as an entrepreneur in what makes a good entrepreneur. What I learned then was that it’s great to be smart and to have a good idea, but at the end of the day, the entrepreneur is the person who has to hold the team together in bad times and to project confidence and vision even when the entrepreneur feels unsure or scared inside.
Most importantly, I learned that maybe the most critical skill of an entrepreneur is the complete unwillingness to fail even in the face of extreme adversity. I just thought to myself at that time that I needed to find a different way and a different investor. I just did not sleep until I found someone who would invest more money into my company and until I found a better revenue model, which ended up being taking money from the online store to send them customers.