Soon the Raffs began daydreaming about turning their idea into a moneymaker. They didn’t have the funds to compete with huge dating sites like Match.com, so they applied for a couple of patents and began brainstorming. They believed that their vertical-search technology was good — better, in fact, than almost anything they had seen online. Best of all, it was built to work well on almost any kind of data set. With just a bit of tinkering, it could search for cheap airline tickets, or great apartments, or high-paying jobs. It could handle questions with hard-to-compare variables, like what’s the cheapest flight between London and Las Vegas if I’m trying to choose between business class or leaving after 3 p.m.?
As far as they could tell, their search technology performed better on such problems than Google did, which Adam discovered when he tried to buy an iPod online. “I spent half an hour searching Google for the lowest price, and it drove me completely mad,” he told me. It was impossible for him to figure out which sites were selling iPods and which were selling accessories, like headphones or charging cords. Or Google would show Adam one price, but then the actual price was completely different. Or there was an extra charge for shipping. It seemed to Adam his technology would do a much better job.
Google executives, had they known of Adam’s frustrations, probably wouldn’t have been surprised. For years, Google had been trying to build a tool for comparing online prices. “The idea was you should be able to input any item, and we’d show you the best place to buy it,” says Brian Larson, a technical lead for what was then named Froogle and today is called Google Shopping. Larson’s team was small — just himself and one other programmer at first, and roughly a dozen people at its height — and Larson would regularly test how Froogle compared with other online price-comparison services. “Sometimes we were neck and neck; sometimes, not so much,” Larson said. “We had a hundred million product listings, which was better than competitors.” But they were often outperformed by sites like PriceGrabber.com, which had many more employees devoted to price comparisons.
Froogle’s limitations tended to pop up particularly when users included too many search parameters. For a while, Larson had a specific test search that Froogle kept failing, something like “white running shoes and cheap and free shipping.” Inevitably, the first result would be a Christmas elf wearing running shoes that some guy was selling online. No matter how Google’s engineers fiddled with their coding, they couldn’t stop the elf from appearing as the top link. Eventually, a manager bought the elf so it wouldn’t appear in the search results anymore. “We made elf T-shirts,” Larson told me. “It became our mascot.”
Adam and Shivaun’s technology was good enough to tell the difference between an elf wearing running shoes and an actual pair of running shoes. It was good enough, in fact, to figure out which websites charged hidden shipping fees and which offered truly good deals. So the Raffs quit their jobs, hired a few programmers, spent months perfecting their technology and, in early 2006, unveiled Foundem.com, a vertical-search engine for finding cheap online prices, to a small group of friends and associates. Each time someone used Foundem to buy something, the Raffs would receive a small payment from the website making the sale. Adam and Shivaun weren’t sure their company would succeed — there were already a couple of other big price-comparison search engines, like PriceGrabber, NexTag and, of course, Google itself — but they figured this was how the internet was supposed to work: Two people with a new idea can take on giants and, if their technology is good enough, grow into colossi themselves.