The Decider

Mike Fridgen turns Big Data into sound advice to consumers

What can Big Data do for you?

In the raw, it’s overwhelming, driving us to a state of analysis paralysis where infinite choices make choosing infinitely difficult.

Mike Fridgen (BA 1997) sees this as an opportunity. One of the co-founders of Farecast.com and Decide.com, Fridgen has dedicated his career to solving the intensifying “paradox of choice.”

“What’s exciting about this information revolution is not the access to data,” he says. “It’s the promise of insight from that data, objective guidance to simplify decision-making. That’s what drives me.”

It has since his earliest days at the Foster School. One of the first students in the newly launched Program in Entrepreneurship and Innovation (now the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship), Fridgen co-founded a packaged student tour company that evolved into Triphub.com, a venture-financed online student travel portal.

When the market turned and the VCs pulled the plug, he emerged bruised but a little bit wiser. A brief stint at Expedia afforded him the halcyon vision of a transformative company powered by visionary leadership and dynamite technologists. A model for his own future.

Next big thing in travel

While taking a course on revenue management—that is, dynamic pricing—toward his MBA at Harvard, Fridgen was introduced by his former backers at Madrona Venture Group to a UW computer scientist named Oren Etzioni. Etzioni had been reverse-engineering revenue management, developing complex algorithms to predict variable pricing. But he needed partners to turn his technology into a market-ready product.

Fridgen jumped at the chance to join Farecast.com, the world’s first price prediction engine. “We were really inventing something,” Fridgen says. “And turning a new technology into a consumer product was some of the most fun I had ever had.”

Farecast found air travelers the best price and offered simple advice on whether to buy or wait, backed by a degree of certainty. It was a hit, first with the tech crowd and later with the average traveler.

Microsoft noticed. It purchased Farecast in 2008 to enhance its Bing search engine.

Time to decide

At Microsoft, Fridgen first served a mainstream audience. He could see that the opportunity to advise consumers was growing exponentially. More and more shopping was migrating online, and bellwether e-tailers like Amazon.com were driving dynamic pricing into every category. He reconnected with Etzioni to create a next-generation comparison shopping engine that would add insight to access.

That engine was Decide.com, a company powered by its proven technical team (largely made up of UW grads) and backed by serious Seattle venture funding. “It was getting the band back together,” Fridgen says.

Decide aggregated user and expert reviews across the Internet to recommend the clear winners in a product category. It also offered guidance on price and purchase timing. The goal was trust and transparency. The model was a “Consumer Reports for the 21st century,” Fridgen says. “Helping people decide what to buy, where to buy, and when to buy.”

By 2013, Decide’s omniscient personal shopping assistant was offering intelligence on virtually everything sold on the Internet: electronics, apparel, appliances, sporting goods, toys, books, you name it.

Obey eBay

Breakout success attracted many suitors. The one that convinced the Decide team to sell was eBay. The online auction site offered a tantalizing challenge: flip the model—from providing buying guidance to consumers to providing pricing guidance to sellers.

It was a big decision for Fridgen & Co. “We had to reconcile this with our deep belief in the mission of leveling the playing field for consumers,” he says.

What they found was the vast majority of eBay’s 25 million sellers were the little guys competing in the market with the likes of Amazon and Walmart. Though Etzioni departed to lead Paul Allen’s Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Fridgen and the rest of the team are working hard to level the playing field for eBay sellers.

And what of the serial entrepreneur, now back at an established firm? Fridgen is committed to eBay, but always with an eye on new challenges. A devout fan of Husky and Seattle sports, he could see himself in the burgeoning industry of sports analytics one day.

Wherever fortune takes him, the themes will undoubtedly include simplicity and transparency. “Big Data sounds complicated, but its real promise is in simplifying everyday decision making. That’s what we’ve aimed to do with all of these companies,” he says. “And that’s what I’ll continue to do.”