Crappiness of data and wisdom of elders

Stamos is fond of telling a story about sitting down with an engineer whom an acquaintance had referred to him for advice. “I meet with the kid and he’s twenty-one, twenty-two,” Stamos recalls. “He was smart. A Harvard computer-science major.” The kid said he’d already done two start-ups and was looking to try a third. His previous venture was a website where women could enter their medical information and find out which one of hundreds of birth-control pills suited them best, with the least amount of side effects. The website would arrive at the answers by trawling bulletin boards and chat rooms across the Web and learning from other people’s experiences.

“Really, you got this funded?” Stamos asked. Yes, said the kid. “But it obviously didn’t work out,” Stamos replied. Right, said the kid. At which point Stamos began to piece together what must’ve happened. “You collected the data and realized a lot of the data out there is horrible, and you couldn’t make sense of it,” he said. The kid allowed that this was true. “You probably talked to CVS—everyone talks to CVS. And they thought it was the best thing since sliced cheese, but they were never willing to buy it.” Again the kid said yes. “Then you realized that anything you’re doing that has to be regulated, like making medical recommendations, requires FDA approval.” By now the kid was demanding to know how Stamos had guessed all of this. “You see these gray hairs?” he said. “It’s the classic model everyone goes through. I know it from Phase Forward.”