Walking through his opulent office space above the Apple store on West 14th, Joe Einhorn passed a tall, handsome man with a shock of dirty red hair. “Isn’t that guy some kind of celebrity?” he asked, as the actor Denis Leary, chatting with his agent, passed in the opposite direction and disappeared around the corner.
Sitting down at his laptop, Mr. Einhorn began to poke around Google, trying to figure out who the guy was. “I think he was on a show about firemen,” he said. Then he got distracted. “What’s that?” he asked, leaning across his desk.
On my middle finger I wear a replica of a prewar signet ring bearing my grandfather’s initials. The original was once lost and my grandfather had a copy made, then several years later found the original. The duplicate ring was my birthday present when I turned 25.
“You see, that tells me so much about you as a person,” Mr. Einhorn says, turning the ring over in his palm. For Mr. Einhorn, every object has a provenance, a history that exerts a powerful pull on the people around it. Putting all of that into a digital database, he thinks, would remake the Web.
Google created the world’s biggest search engine by devising the best way to chart the relationships between the billions of pages that make up the Web. Facebook became the world’s most important social network by building the best system for understanding the identities and relationships of the people who use the Web. A database that allows users to identify and search every object in the world could be as elemental, and profitable.
Imagine browsing the Web and being able to learn about any piece of clothing, from any image, on any Web site, with just the push of a button. Instead of just cataloging their friends on Facebook, users could begin to build inventories of their possessions as well. Tied into all of this, inevitably, would include sharing, swapping, selling and shopping.
Mr. Einhorn, 29, is thin and excitable, with a buzzed head and stylish clothes he admits his wife picks out. “I think of objects as the last great uncharted territory on the map,” he said, playing with a rolling chair in his office. “Who’s knows what this guy’s story is,” he said, referring to the chair. He pushed off the table with his foot, spinning the chair in a tight circle.
He calls his project “Thing daemon,” or Thingd for short. A daemon is a computer program that runs in the background, named not for satanic minions but for the ancient Greek concept of a daemon: something that is not visible, yet is always present and working its will.
The daemon is one-half of Mr. Einhorn’s plan to create the world’s best database of objects. Programs that he and his team created crawl the Web constantly, examining images and identifying objects based on surrounding text, tags, ID numbers, even the shape, size and color of the images themselves. “We’ve got hundreds of millions of objects in our database,” says Mr. Einhorn, “and we’re adding more than two million a week.”
For several years now, Mr. Einhorn and his team have been building their database largely in secret, ignoring press requests, fearing that publicity would spur competition from some formidable foes.
“There are a lot of folks working on this idea,” says Tom Pinckney, co-founder of the New York start-up Hunch. Companies like Google, Amazon and eBay are all constructing databases of consumer products. “Right now it’s not clear what the best approach is, or who will have the strongest database. But when one player does emerge from the pack, there will be a strong network effect.”
Mr. Pinckney compares it to the once-competitive landscape for social networks. “Once Facebook emerged as the clear leader, it just grew faster and faster, while others died off. The same thing will happen when a company in the object space crystallizes as number one.”
To compete with giants like Google and Amazon, Thingd needs serious funds, and the company has assembled a formidable set of investors: Andreessen Horowitz, arguably the hottest VC fund in the world today, plus Allen & Co., General Catalyst, Esther Dyson, Jim Pallotta (billionaire owner of the Boston Celtics), Bob Pittman (creator of MTV), Maynard Webb (former president of eBay) and the scions Eric Eisner and Jeff Samberg.
The investors have been attracted in large part by Mr. Einhorn. At 16, he became the first employee of Capital IQ, which structured messy financial data for hedge funds and money managers. He started working nights and weekends, but after graduating from high school, he decided to forgo college and work there full time. Capital IQ was acquired by S&P for $200 million when Mr. Einhorn was just 22.
From there, he founded Inform Technologies, which helped publishers better organize and present their content, and is now used by CNN, CBS, The Economist and Condé Nast.
For all its ambition and investment, Thingd remains a tiny company: It’s Mr. Einhorn and just nine developers. But that, he says, is on purpose. “I always told him one of the best rules in business was to add overhead very reluctantly, and he has followed that,” says Jim Satloff, who was part of the team that acquired Capital IQ and went on to work as CEO of Inform Technologies. “Joey is a visionary. He sees two or three steps further into the future than anyone. That kind of vision means he can attract top talent.”
PETER ROJAS KNOWS the passion people can have for inanimate objects, having created Engadget and Gizmodo, the two biggest gadget blogs in the nation. His new venture, the Betaworks-backed gdgt, is an attempt to tap the wisdom of the crowd to catalog every gadget in the world. “I see what Joe is trying to do, and I admire such an ambitious project,” says Mr. Rojas. “You can do a lot with computers, but at this point I just think there is no substitute for having a human being involved.” On gdgt, humans, not computer programs, are building the database of things.
“It’s just so hard with stuff people are not passionate about,” says Mr. Rojas. “Facebook worked because people want to put in information about their friends. I mean, it’s one thing to find users who want to contribute information about a new camera or iPad. It’s a lot harder to get people to help you build a database of Aeron chairs, with every model and color. What about mattresses, or forks? It’s just not sexy. In the end, I think a project of that scale is going to be dominated by somebody like Google.”
Mr. Rojas is right that not many people feel strongly enough about mundane objects to catalog every make and model. Type “Aeron chair” into the search bar on Thingd, however, and the database returns more than 281 results–Herman Miller Aeron chairs in every conceivable shape, size and color. It has cataloged some 67,000 mattresses and more than 81,500 forks.
But that database isn’t very interesting, or accurate, until something gets built on top of it, and people begin to use the data. Human interaction around these objects is what will drive Thingd to the pole position ahead of Google and Amazon and help its software to more accurately identify items and brands. “Facebook wouldn’t be very interesting if it was just a collection of info about people,” says Mr. Rojas. “A database is just table stakes to do something bigger.”
One project at Thingd is a site called The Fancy, which allows users to tag the objects, not the people, within photos; it has become a coveted invite among fashionable denizens of the Web. Even the mainstream is catching on, as evidenced earlier this week, when US Weekly tweeted that its editors had become obsessed with The Fancy.
The goal is to follow Facebook’s model. “We needed to get the database rock solid first,” says Mr. Einhorn. “Now we’re ready to start building on that platform.” While The Fancy aims at fashion, another Einhorn site, Plastastic, aims to tap the passion of toy collectors. A site for comic-book collectors is set to go live soon. “Eventually we will open up an API to our data, and anyone will be able to build a great app or Web site about objects that relies on our database.”
Mr. Einhorn doesn’t have as much experience with consumer Web sites as he does conquering massive sets of messy data. But so far The Fancy is growing steadily, attracting new users and press attention. Mr. Einhorn’s board includes the co-founders of the Web’s two most successful social applications, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Chris Hughes of Facebook.
“When I first met Joey, his database was pretty substantial, tens of millions of things,” says Mr. Dorsey. “All it was missing was a little oomph, a very approachable front end for the average user. But the new products they are putting on top of it, like The Fancy, is really taking it to the next level. What I love about it is that it’s completely natural. You flip through the pages of a magazine or walk down the street and you think to yourself: I like that, I have that, I want that.”
The Fancy is still invite only, and Mr. Einhorn isn’t pushing to expand too fast. “We’ve got great investors who are comfortable with us taking our time,” he says. He puts his hand on the back of his office chair again. “Who’s to say how we should relate to one another? This isn’t as simple as liking someone or making them your friend. Commerce is at the heart a lot of these relationships, and that can be tricky.”
Leaning back in his chair, Mr. Einhorn recounted an article he read recently about a painting that had fallen behind a couch. After many years, the family got around to moving their furniture and taking a second look at the painting. It was eventually declared a Michelangelo by prominent art historians, probably worth millions. It became clear as Mr. Einhorn talked that as far as he was concerned, the old sofa was as interesting an actor in that story as the priceless painting.
Follow Benjamin Popper via RSS.