Boiling the Ocean Leads to Drowning


The other day inBloom lost the last of its original statewide data partners when New York bowed to pressure from parents and educators about privacy and pulled the plug. After starting out with 9 (or 11, depending on who’s doing the counting) state clients and $100 million, yes million, from of old and new money, it looks like inBloom is kaput.

Without making a judgement on inBloom’s ambitions the whole enterprise had two fatal flaws. It needed to boil the ocean to work, and until it did no one had any interest in adding fuel to the fire.

Boiling the ocean means that you’re trying to get something  really big to happen all at once. The people who want to boiled the ocean as a business strategy are a lot like what Joel Spolsky called architecture astronauts–instead of having a specific idea for solving a specific problem, they abstract out the problem so far that it’s more of a vision than a practical business. inBloom’s big idea was that it would get entire state school systems–every K-12 school, and beyond, in every state–to dump all of their data in one place so that it could be treated as a Big Data resource for educators, entrepreneurs, and policy experts to improve education.

Besides the fact that there’s no evidence that such Big Data would actually lead to better outcomes, or that inBloom was apparently extraordinarily naive about how the public would feel about aggregating so much personal data in an outside vendor’s hands, inBloom’s boil-the-ocean strategy didn’t actually solve anyone’s problems (i.e. have a business model) if it couldn’t get the water to at least heat up.

Who were inBloom’s most engaged supporters? Vendors who either couldn’t or wouldn’t make the case to schools that their own products should have access to student data. And those vendors certainly weren’t paying inBloom, nor were the school districts that wouldn’t get any immediate payoff for sharing the data. inBloom wasn’t going to be useful or viable even as an information resource, much less a business, until it convinced a whole ocean of constituencies to buy into its model when there was nothing in it for them until the model reached its apotheosis.

This is wishful thinking, not building a business or even building a social good that solves problems. It’s too bad that inBloom didn’t stop to think what would be in it for the school districts, parents, and students while they waited for the ocean to boil.