Imagine that, five or 10 years ago, someone came to you and said he wanted you to post on the Web your yearbook, your address book, and all of those silly photos of you and your friends getting ready to go out for the night. This person wanted to make the information semi-public—available not just to your friends, but to your friends' friends, and to everyone in your school or your workplace. Then, imagine that this person said that this whole database of yearbooks, address books, and photographs would someday be worth $50 billion. What would you have done? You would have scoffed. But this is one version of the story of Facebook.
Now imagine that someone came to you and said he wanted you to post not your yearbook, but your things—everything you owned or saw or wanted. "We're bringing that social aspect to real life," earnestly promises Joseph Einhorn, the 29-year-old head of a young start-up called Thingd, pronounced "thing dee" and touted as the Facebook of stuff.
We spoke in his office in Manhattan's meatpacking district, a penthouse like a Bond villain's lair, all stone and exposed beams and skylights. It's clear Einhorn is not a typical struggling entrepreneur, and his business not a typical struggling startup. At just 16, Einhorn joined Capital IQ and helped build a data-management system for hedge funds and other financial companies. When he was 22, Standard & Poor's bought the business for more than $200 million. Then, he founded Inform Technologies, a data-management business used by a number of major news corporations. At Thingd, which Einhorn started in 2009, board members include Jack Dorsey, a founder of Twitter, and Chris Hughes, a founder of Facebook. The company counts among its investors Andreessen Horowitz, Allen & Co., and Boston Celtics owner Jim Pallotta.
What exactly is it that Einhorn is trying to do and why is everyone so interested? Basically, Thingd is hoping to pull together a repository of object information: to collect, name, and tag every existing thing on the Web. In 2009, Einhorn and his programmers started building a program to trawl the Internet for images of objects, collecting them as well as data about them, such as size, color, make, and origin.
But isn't the Internet already an anarchic repository of stuff, forced into some semblance of order by the principles of various search and data and retail businesses? Who would need an index of everything, given that some things are more useful or valuable than others? Is this information worth anything to anyone? It is this last question that is the existential one for Thingd, and Einhorn and his investors seem confident. To understand why, remember that description of Facebook. The narrative is missing a main component—the main component, in fact: Facebook is not just a blind, dumb bucket filled with billions of tidbits of information about people. It is, famously, a "social network," and the connections between those tidbits of information are what make the company so revolutionary. Users link themselves to one another online, through tagging and friending and de-friending and messaging. Those links order the bits of information, letting Facebook deliver you friends, applications, games, and goods you might like, making the project valuable to you. And all that ordered information makes you valuable to advertisers, which underpin the business.
Einhorn doesn't intend Thingd to remain a huge searchable bucket of chandeliers and Christmas trees and moose and viruses. It is merely the infrastructure for other products and companies to build out. The "d" in the name Thingd is a shortening of "daemon." On the Internet, daemons are the invisible systems—the "mailer daemon" gets your e-mail message from one place to another behind the actual email interface. (And sometimes bounces it back to you.) Thingd is the system to hold and retrieve all of those objects and tags. And Einhorn is starting to build portals into and structures for that data universe. "We think of this as a really interesting way of learning about people," he says.
The first launched product for consumers is the Fancy, a kind of fashion magazine for the blog age. (Einhorn describes it as "Twitter meets Vogue meets Barneys, or Twitter meets Architectural Digest meets Ikea.") It is a spare site that lets members post and tag images of things, and it has already caught on with the black-clad aesthete set. One person puts up vintage cars and black watches and gorgeous dark-toned homes. Another posts handbags and shots of pretty people on the street. Another pulls together Warholian sets of oddly beautiful industrial products. Ashton Kutcher is on there, as are staff members from most of the top fashion magazines. (The site was recently featured in the New York Times.)
The network effect is what Einhorn hopes renders the site valuable. The most frequent users become figures on a masthead. Users can click through on many of the images to purchase the item—and the Fancy gets a cut. Eventually advertisers will be able to post their own images, and tailor to specific users. And the Fancy is just the first portal into the big Thingd world of data. Einhorn has plans for more.
But the company, sooner rather than later, will have competition: Thinking about and building start-ups for the so-called "Internet of stuff" is the new new thing. Einhorn says it himself: "How do we take the information and things that are in real life and how do we get it onto the Internet?" To that end, corporations like Nokia and Apple have poured millions of dollars into creating advanced object-identification systems—so you can point your phone at something and then have information about it pop up, for instance. (For some phones, such systems are already in place.) And in the past year or two, academics, research firms (PDF), start-ups, and many others have started thinking about how to make stuff "social."
And what does that mean for you on the Web? It does not necessarily mean that, as Einhorn and others say, Thingd will be the social network for your stuff. It's not clear stuff wants to be networked, or how much people want to put it there. But if you have stuff—and who doesn't?—and you want to show it, sell it, or just memorialize it online, Thingd and other sites want to let you. And while you're there, maybe you'll see somebody else's stuff that you want to buy.