When I first phoned the boys at Scour.Net and told them I was interested in their rags-to-riches rise from the computer-science department at UCLA to corporate glory in Beverly Hills, they were excited. I described the story as I saw it: Seven humble undergraduates build a multimedia search engine out of nothing but a stash of hitherto unused ones and zeros and their own pluck and bustle, and thereby attract a multimillion-dollar investment from no less a robber baron than Michael Ovitz. Travis Kalanick, Scour‘s 23-year-old v.p. for strategy, liked my pitch, but wanted to make it very clear that, despite its meteoric success, Scour was still “grassroots,” even “underground.” Without taking so much as a breath to reflect, he then suggested that I contact the company’s PR rep at Ogilvy to set up a meeting.
If Scour‘s success has all the makings of a Horatio Alger yarn, it is also part of the long-developing story of capitalism’s conquest of cool. The Web‘s potential for micro-niche marketing has taught advertisers to sneak into our heads and figure out what we want — before we even know we want it. Such shifts in marketing techniques will likely change the way we relate to popular culture. If all works out for Travis and friends, Scour.Net will turn out to be the first chapter in the much-longer story of how culture came to be a commodity consumed online.
The story begins in the fall of 1997, in UCLA’s Courtside dorm, where Vince Busam, then 19, decided it would be fun to create a program that would take full advantage of broadband technology by searching only for multimedia sites. Vince, blond and affable, with an Abe Lincoln beard, enlisted the help of Mike Todd, also 19, equally affable and blond, but beardless, with a goofy laugh. They worked together at a desk tucked beneath the wooden loft where Vince‘s dorm-issue twin bed was perched. Surrounded by beanbag chairs, Beatles posters and black-light prints, the pair soon put together a crawler that searched the Net through the dorm networks. They did it, according to Travis, just “because they thought it was really cool.” What they created was very primitive, usable only by other techies. “The links that would return,” Travis explains, “wouldn’t be links. It would just be a path that you would have to copy and paste and do all these weird things to actually get what you were looking for.”
Mike and Vince showed what they‘d done to some friends at UCLA’s Computer Science Undergraduate Association who, it turned out, saw a great deal of potential — not only for fun, but for profit. A search engine that could find only multimedia sites would allow users with high-bandwidth connections to find content inaccessible online before broadband arrived. They could enjoy music and videos, even TV and movies, without leaving their desks. The way people (or at least those affluent enough to have a PC with top-of-the-line Internet access) interact with and, more importantly, consume pop culture would be irrevocably changed. As Travis would put it later, “We‘re changing the way people experience entertainment.”
“As soon as Mike and I decided that we could make some money off it, we got Dan and Jason on pretty quickly,” Vince recalls. Dan Rodrigues, who hails from Orange County, was then the president of the undergrad computer association, a would-be MBA candidate who lists Bill Gates among his heroes. (“He’s one of the smartest guys on the planet.”) Now, his hair thinning at 23, he is Scour‘s president. Jason Droege, who only turned 21 this past June, also signed on. Tall with clean-cut good looks, he went to UCLA to study film (“I wanted to be a screenwriter”), but found he was drawn to computers.
Kevin Smilak, 23, was the next to join. Shy and serious, Kevin is the only one of Scour’s founders to finish his UCLA degree. While working part-time for Scour, he later shot up to Stanford for a quick master‘s. It was Kevin who provided a guesthouse in his parents’ Walnut Creek back yard for some intensive Christmas-break code writing. (Here, the rags-to-riches narrative gets a little thin: Smilak‘s folks lived in a Bay Area suburban house ample enough to fit four extra friends. Smilak’s stepdad, a mortgage banker–cum–entrepreneur, provided a sizable chunk of the $120,000 in start-up money the boys managed to shake out of their families and friends.) After two weeks in front of the computers clustered on the Smilaks‘ pool table, the five had created Scour.
Over the next two months, the founders recruited two other friends from the computer association: the aforementioned Travis, then 20, doe-eyed and mellow, and on the heels of a summer internship with the Boston Consulting Group; and Ilya Haykinson, a skinny 19-year-old Muscovite who had been enough of a whiz kid to be taken on as a Microsoft intern while still in high school.
The seven of them began working out of Mike and Dan’s apartment in Westwood, which Mike eventually left to make room for more office space. (“My office was Dan‘s bedroom,” Travis reports. “I had to leave at 11 so he could go to bed.”). There was occasional friction: Dan liked hip-hop, but Mike and Vince insisted on “’80s pop crap,” as Mike puts it. “It would get Dan all pissed off — he was from Orange County, and he thought he was from the ‘hood.” But the site went up, originally on UCLA’s server, and things moved quickly from there. Within three months, Scour was getting 50,000 hits a day, by June, 500,000. That fall, most of Scour‘s creators dropped out of school. By April of this year, when Michael Ovitz and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle came knocking, Scour was up to 1.5 million daily hits, and 700,000 unique users each month.
In June — shortly after Ovitz put the fear of God into Scour with a threatened but quickly resolved breach-of-contract suit — a deal was announced. Ovitz and Burkle bought 51 percent of the company for a neat $4 million, adding Scour to their growing portfolio of hot Internet sites that already included GameSpy, Talk City and CheckOut.com. Ogilvy was hired to handle PR, and the boys left Dan’s two-bedroom digs in Westwood for a suite in a posh office complex on a tree-lined Beverly Hills street. Though not one of them is old enough to rent a car, they now boast “vice-president-type salaries,” as Travis modestly puts it. The parking lot, he says with a sheepish grin, is “like a BMW farm.”
Scour‘s investors are gambling that multimedia on the Web is only beginning to take off. The site now provides access to the thousands of radio stations that broadcast online, and lets you search them by playlist. (Travis explains: “You type in Busta Rhymes, you’re going to get all the radio stations that have that in the playlist, and the ones that float to the top [of the search] are the ones that have Busta Rhymes more often. There might even be a Busta Rhymes station out there!”) And Scour.Net offers easy links to downloadable music and videos. But the selection is still fairly limited.
Scour makes it easy to browse through work by new artists (or work that falls into entirely new categories: The alternative-music section of Scour includes subcategories like “Twee,” “Shoegazer” and “Emo,” as well as the more predictable “Brit Pop,” “Ambient” and “Grunge”). But tracking down a specific song by a specific artist can be touch-and-go. Despite the popularity of digital music compression (Lycos reported this winter that “MP3” was its second most commonly searched term; the first, of course, was “sex”), there‘s a near-infinite amount of recorded music that hasn’t been placed online. The same goes for videos and, even more so, for films and TV.
The Scour boys expect that will change. By forming partnerships with music, movie and TV studios, which Ovitz & Co. will grease, and with other Internet content providers — such as Rolling Stone‘s online venture and L.A. Tonight, an online guide to local nightlife — Scour will soon be able to create what they call an “entertainment suite” personalized to the user. “Entertainment suite will be more compelling” than the offerings of ordinary search engines, Travis says, “because you’ll have reviews of some of the content. If you see a Britney Spears music video you might be able to connect to a Britney Spears interview,” or find out when Britney‘s in town and buy tickets to her show, or buy any number of Britney Spears gewgaws. “Those are the cool things the Net enables.”
This, of course, is how Scour makes money — not only through brokering deals with content providers (including Britney’s record label), but by engaging in the sort of hyperspecialized niche marketing that only the Net can offer. This is also where Travis‘ vision of the future of entertainment gets a tad menacing. In addition to requiring visitors to fill out a questionnaire when they register with Scour, the company will be able to track how each visitor uses the site. “We’re not going to send out your name and everything to everybody out there — we‘re just going to say we watch you and we watch what you do,” Travis reports.
If the Net can successfully create spaces for free and radical discourse unimaginable a decade ago — witness the worldwide distribution of Zapatista communiques and, less encouragingly, the ease of communication among neofascist cliques — it has also birthed this nightmare form of interactivity (“We watch you and we watch what you do”). In a few short years, it has come a long way toward realizing the capitalist wet dream of the perfectly predictable consumer. That would be you, dear reader.
Or maybe not, if you don’t fall into Scour‘s targeted demographic. As major search engines such as Yahoo! and AltaVista make it easier to search exclusively for multimedia material, Scour’s competitive edge will come from its self-conscious targeting of a specific audience, composed largely of people more or less identical to Scour‘s employees: young, largely white, affluent and male, highly computer literate and pop-culturally savvy. It is this edge that lets Scour create, in Dan Rodrigues’ words, “a Web environment that the Yahoos of the world just can‘t create, because they’re trying to cater to everyone.”
Back to Travis: “700,000 people in a month, that‘s a whole city. You can market to those people. If they all like music, you might market speakers to them, cool speakers that they’re looking for. It might be multimedia-type hardware like a big monitor, or it might be software that they‘re interested in, but once you understand the users, you really know the types of products they’re going to use.”
Sometime this fall, Scour will get a new logo and a complete overhaul of its “branding” — a term that apparently does not first bring to mind the stink of burning flesh for Travis, who beams, “You‘re going to look at that logo, and you’re going to feel the brand and go, ‘Man, that is Scour-user!’” It is hard at times to reconcile such unadulterated corporate glee with the Scour boys‘ constant invocation of terms like “underground” and “grassroots,” which they use to describe both their eyeball-to-eyeball relationship with their customer base and the relaxed atmosphere of Scour’s offices. (Travis recounts frequent Nerf-dart battles to counter stress: “When the president comes in your office and shoots you with a dart, you shoot back.”)
But, in one of the more bizarre developments of the late 20th century, these words have been removed from their original political context to become an everyday feature of corporate rhetoric. As part of the same movement by which politically and aesthetically provocative pop music morphed into the clawless marketing category known as “alternative” (very well represented at Scour.Net), an entire generation of Americans learned the word revolution from an old MTV logo.
It is thus not out of cynicism that Travis can claim that Scour is “revolutionary — we‘re changing the way people consume entertainment.” But how this revolution of sorts — which could send radios and televisions the way of the 8-track and the Betamax — might play out is another question. Will music, film and television become even more market-driven than they are today? Will anything sneak through that aspires to be more than just product?
The answers to these questions depend at least in part on whether Scour and its competitors allow the much-heralded democracy of the Net to flourish, or let their corporate partners rig the results. The site currently features plenty of material well outside the mainstream: Smack Patsy’s “(I Wanna Be Shania Twain‘s) Leather Pants” and Bad Samaritan’s “(Jesus Was a) Leather Fag” stand out. But Travis‘ own take on the subject doesn’t inspire optimism. “We want to be content and technology agnostic, meaning we don‘t favor one piece of content over another. A search engine has no bias. It goes out there and finds everything,” he says. “But it’s pretty obvious . . . that there are certain record labels you‘re going to want to do deals with before others . . .”