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
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
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.
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
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
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.”