Can Transparency Be a Business Model?

Viewpoint: A Proposal for a Place to Talk to Your Critics and Tell the World How Your Products Are Made

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Esther Dyson
Esther Dyson
I was going to write an essay about the promise and perils of transparency, but you have read it all before. Perhaps you have even written it:

"The public's eye is on your business. Consumer expectations are rising. You now need to disclose not just what's in your products but how you make them and treat the people you employ or subcontract. The need for -- and costs of -- responsiveness, even as lawyers tell you never to admit anything. The fact that the conversation will happen, with you or without you."

So let me try another tack. Can transparency be a business model? Not, can it be good business, but can a business dedicated to transparency prosper?

I have a particular business in mind, one that I would like to see succeed. It's derived from a promising not-for-profit social project fondly called "Barcode Wikipedia" and was formulated at (where else?) Social Innovation Camp last April. The ringleader, Richard Pope, plans to build it out at Consumer Focus Labs, a website that's part of a U.K. government consumer-support organization.

The idea is pretty simple: Develop a website full of product content so that anyone can go into a store -- or his neighbor's house, for that matter -- scan an item's barcode, send the scan to Barcode Wikipedia, and get back a full account of the product. The data would not be just the manufacturer's ingredients, warranty policy, corporate statements and the like (though that would be interesting in itself), but also third-party ratings for carbon content, labor policies, nutritional quality, social correctness or even stylishness. All points of view are welcome; the user can filter what she's interested in. It would be much like Wikipedia, but (for now) focused on tangible products and with more structured data.

Crossing the Atlantic
I love this idea, and I'm wondering what it would take to make it happen in the U.S. with a commercial business model. I'm a bit skeptical of government-sponsored efforts. At best, they often get tied up in due process. They have so much authority that they have to step gingerly. At worst, they serve the bureaucracy rather than their users. But I wish the Consumer Focus Labs effort well. If eventually two or more such organizations either cooperate constructively or compete, so much the better.

So, perhaps someone reading this piece in the U.S. will see a commercial opportunity, not just an idea, and jump at the chance. Let's call it, with a wink, Barcode Confidential: the service that tells you the secrets behind the barcode.

Esther Dyson is a long-time catalyst of start-ups in information technology in the U.S. and other markets, including Russia. Read more about her adventures at
What needs to happen? First, someone needs to take on this project, with all the challenges of technology, leadership, partnership, marketing, etc. And did I mention that it needs a business model?

There should be a real business here. The essence of Wikipedia is that it is free and unsullied by any commercial interests -- but it's also creaking under the strain. The broad topics and dead people covered in Wikipedia can't be solicited to pay, but makers of products can. A product-focused service could charge the vendors for a place to give their side of the story and use that money to pay for the costs of the business, plus a return to investors.

In the old days, this probably wouldn't have worked. Why should a producer pay to get beaten up in public? The answer is simple. One, you're going to get beaten up anyway; you're paying for the privilege of replying. And two, isn't there a company that really believes in healthy criticism to help it improve? I'm enough of an idealist to believe that there are a few -- and that others can be provoked into pretending they believe.

Consumer choice
Here's that idealistic point of view, ready to be borrowed by the start-up's CEO and marketing chief. Transparency is a mechanism for companies to get better and better. Otherwise, you have to think that marketing is really just a subtle form of deceit, designed to cover up the truth rather than to reveal what distinguishes one product from another in a world where there may be no single best, but a variety of consumer preferences and trade-offs between quality, however defined, and cost, size, performance and other parameters. In a perfect world, consumers will know what they are getting and want precisely that, given the possible choices.

Whether they are true believers or just politically correct, smart companies are already discovering that they have to join existing conversations rather than convene them; they need to show up (and pay to show up) where they are being criticized rather than hide. Barcode Confidential is the place where they can do so -- telling the world about how their products are made and responding to critics.

Like Wikipedia, BC Confidential will have to deal with conflicting versions of the truth, as well as data that are seemingly more objective but often also contentious. To handle that, Barcode Confidential should start with a set of products and a set of ratings from some respected third parties: consumer reports, various activist groups, manufacturers' associations (yes, let's hear from everyone!), carbon-counting services, etc. A doctor friend of mine suggests including links to a poison database listing common ingredients that can be poisons -- and their antidotes. (It could also point to local poison centers, for that matter.) Barcode Confidential can perform a variety of functions; it's up to the users which ones to use and add.

Instead of a cycle of editing and counterediting and a constantly updated single truth, Barcode Confidential would have channels. In order to be true to the spirit of things, any editor/group could add a channel (technically, a field in the database).

Each channel would need a curator who could control the content, if only by allowing anyone to post to it. Then users could choose which sources to trust by applying their own filters or selecting their own channels -- do they want to see manufacturer's statement of ingredients, carbon count from AMEE, labor policies from the Campaign for Labor Rights or their favorite commentator?

Over time, with effective marketing and management, Barcode Confidential could become a valuable resource both to consumers and producers.

Enlightened businesspeople
Now about the funding. Of course, the service needs a little funding to get started, but it should not be do-gooder funding. It should come from enlightened but still hard-headed businesspeople who see an opportunity to start something in a time of recession when good people are easy to find and competition will be limited.

Likewise, Barcode Confidential needs a CEO who believes in the mission but is happy to sell, manage, do deals and find partners. The CEO will also have to be dedicated enough to resist a variety of pressures from vendors who don't like the transparency and others who somehow or other want to influence the content unfairly. Many data-oriented groups and individuals will be happy to contribute access to their data in exchange for visibility and traffic.

A couple of enlightened companies, who might expect the truth to not be too uncomfortable, could be encouraged to sponsor it until a broader base of companies see Barcode Confidential as the place to tell their own stories. Some will welcome the feedback, and others will shun it.

What will keep Barcode Confidential honest? The threat of competition and, as a commercial enterprise, having to keep both its sponsors and its users happy. No users means no sponsors.

How about it? The project needs a CEO. Are there any takers? They don't need my blessing. They just need to get started.

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