Vinit Bharara, one of the most successful retailers in Internet history, is creating cafe.com, a content site. Can he sell storytelling and “passion” the way he sold diapers and soap?
Vinit Bharara co-founded diapers.com in 2005 with one of those deceptively simple ideas that’s so enormously appealing: sell lots of something millions of people need, over and over. It’s just two steps, right? First, you take an 800 number–in this case 1800Diapers–and convert it into a digital domain. Second, you start fulfilling the millions of orders. But the thing about simple business ideas is that while it’s easy to have them, they’re hard to do. Competition is sure to be brutal. You’ve got to execute better than everyone else. (By the time you’ve got robots in your warehouse those two steps have become a thousand.) But once you get into a leadership position, the boat will row itself, collecting lots of useful data along the way. (Not to mention fishing up loads of related products that your loyal customer base also needs–car seats, for instance.) If, like Bharara and his co-founder Marc Lore, you wipe out the competition with your baby wipes delivery, Amazon buys you six years later for half a billion dollars. And even Amazon–where efficiency is king–recognizes that you’re so good at what you do they leave your company alone to run independently. The whole idea of diapers.com, so brilliant from this vantage point, took some serious gumption coming just a few years after flame-outs like toys.com and webvan.com.
But how do you get from there to content? It helps to remember that diapers.com was just one part (others were soap.com, etc.) of the larger company Mr. Bharara and Mr. Lore created–called Quidsi. That name holds the key to the founders’ imagination–diapers.com may be the plainest name in the world (and beautiful for it), but Quidsi means, in Latin, “What if?” Combining the groundedness of the former with the dreamy ambition of “What if?” is what made Bharara and Lore unique. Bharara’s latest venture, announced this week, is going to ask that question again–even going to shout it. In the fall, he’s launching a new content site called cafe.com to enter the crowded (and by some accounts burgeoning) sector of content creation. In its own words, cafe.com will “focus on our writers and our people–even before our readers,” believing that if writers “write about their passions…readers will follow.” Pre-launch inspiration at cafe.com is being provided by Abraham Lincoln’s idea that the “written word may be man’s greatest invention.” It may be wise to keep in mind that Lincoln never lived to see the disposable diaper. But Mr. Bharati has answered the question “What if?” before, and astonished doubters with the results, so it would be unwise to doubt him.