Sell Less, Share More: OpenTable's Founder Moves Toward Social Impact

Posted by Sarah Stankorb

Many entrepreneurs have dot-com dreams: Come up with a fabulous idea, put it online, and make a bundle—call it the Instagram strategy. As a fantasy, it’s great. In reality, that chapter of the story ends with the question then what?

Sometimes, entrepreneurs decide to turn their business-building skills to good. After founding, growing, and exiting the online reservation site OpenTable, Chuck Templeton underwent  a dramatic change in values, in the process developing a new business that may transform the way we interact with our neighbors. His site, OhSoWe, is all about getting neighbors to share what they’ve got, so that collectively, we buy less.

The first time around

When Templeton founded OpenTable in 1998, the idea was a fluke. After watching his wife struggle for hours to make reservations at a good restaurant for his visiting in-laws—back when Zagat was just a book and CitySearch was one of few online guides—he had the thought that’s launched a thousand startups: “There has to be a better way.”

At that time, Templeton worked in product marketing in the semiconductor industry. As a non-engineer, he had little opportunity to move up. Some of his friends founded Evite and NorthPoint Communications; another pal started early on at Yahoo. Templeton applied, but couldn’t get a job at any internet companies.

“I’ve probably written eight lines of code in my life, and some of them were probably broken,” he says; still, he could read the tea leaves. “I just had this belief that this thing called the internet was going to be a pretty big deal.”

His advantage was that “I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” Templeton had never written a business plan, but had learned how to write one in college. He didn’t know the high failure rate of startups. He didn’t know what a venture capitalist was.

What Templeton did have was excellent timing. He was in Silicon Valley when investors knew the drill and offered standard terms. Templeton also had an instinct for networking. He used copies of Industry Standard (the Wired magazine of the late '90s) to find more experienced entrepreneurs. He’d call them up and ask for 15 minutes of advice: How do you hire an HR manager? Should we use Java? Do you rent or lease hardware?

He also had the right product in mind. Before OpenTable, “there was this industry that did everything with pencil and paper or it was in the head of your host or hostess or maitre d’.” Not only was this inefficient, “your maitre d’ or host could fall in love and move to Barcelona. Your database could disappear on you one day. Or worse, get a better job offer down the street at one of your competitors.”

OpenTable started by building an electronic reservation book and customer tracking system, which added value for high-end restaurants before the online reservation tool launched. The startup targeted the top 20 most influential restaurants in a city and sold its product to five. In their quest to become top restaurants too, between 20 and 70 mid-level restaurants would follow. Soon, smaller establishments began to join, hoping to fill seats.

OpenTable shakily survived the tech bubble burst at the turn of the century. But by 2009, when the company raised $69 million in an initial public offering, Templeton had the financial freedom to pursue something else.

He wanted to build a company that didn’t sell anything

At that point, Templeton’s daughter was four years old, and he’d been reading books portending a dark future. He says he started to turn into an environmental alarmist. In his personal life, Templeton is focused on getting to zero net energy usage with home solar and wind systems. He cans, has low-flow faucets, and shares a chicken coop with his neighbors. He’s likely one of few entrepreneurs who successfully exited the dot-com era yet buys clothes at Goodwill.

Notions of waste consume him. One figure came to represent a central failing in the way we live: There are 60 million drills in the United States and each is used, on average, 10 minutes a year. Multiply that by blenders that sit in the back of kitchen cabinets. Think coolers, ladders, ski pants, air mattresses—an ocean of household detritus sitting uselessly in every home on the block. “Eventually, I got to the point where I wanted to build an organization that didn’t sell anything,” says Templeton. Again, he’d found himself thinking “there has to be a better way.”

This was around the time Templeton met OhSoWe partner Arun Sivashankaran, an entrepreneur who’d sold his company and who was also seeking to make a positive environmental impact. Their impulse is common among second-time entrepreneurs. “There’s definitely a recurring theme—individuals, for whatever reason, having their identity expand,” says Jeffrey York, an environmental entrepreneurship professor at University of Colorado at Boulder.

Sometimes it’s a consequence of seeing environmental degradation first-hand. Sometimes, as in Templeton’s case, it’s the birth of a child. When there’s an urge to create a new business paired with a new, deeply felt passion, you wind up with social enterprise.

OhSoWe launched in beta last year, and there are currently 16,000 users. It’s a “distributed tool shed” and a community of helping hands that cuts purchases of occasional-use items. It also creates some of the tight-knit neighborliness that used to happen when people really did run next door to borrow a cup of sugar. Anyone in the U.S., U.K., or Canada can shift their neighborhood online and begin sharing. The city of Chicago has partnered with OhSoWe for a winter snow shovel-sharing program.

The site is a mix of needs, shared objects, and requests for help. Vince Burnard joined OhSoWe after learning about it at a community event at which locals were encouraged to join “10,000 Neighbors,” OhSoWe’s largest group. His first experience, borrowing a drill from a stranger, was mixed. The drill wouldn’t hold a charge, but the lender  wasn’t suspicious that Burnard had somehow broken it. He had more luck sharing skills—caulking windows, cleaning gutters—and through a neighbor’s referral landed a full-time job with a local contractor. “In that regard, I have OhSoWe to thank in large part for my subsistence,” Burnard says.

The major difference between Templeton’s first business and OhSoWe is that while OpenTable was a new idea, it was recognizable in Silicon Valley. With OpenTable, it was clear how to monetize the product. With OhSoWe, Templeton says, “we don’t have solid proof that our business models will work.” Templeton and Sivashankaran are considering offering nominal fees to help people rent out larger items and facilitate the process with deposits and insurance. Turning a profit will be crucial.

“We don’t want to be grant-dependent,” says Templeton. “We’d like to make sure the business is successful through operations.”

The trick will be finding enough other people who are equally committed to Templeton’s vision. This makes OhSoWe’s launch both more fulfilling and frustrating than OpenTable. “Madison Avenue spends hundreds of millions of dollars every year telling us that we’re not anything unless we buy something,” Templeton says. “It’s going to take a lot of discipline and longevity to continue to flow against that.”

Each Thursday, Sarah Stankorb examines the way social enterprise is changing business and creating positive impact.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user bengrey