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Joel on Software

The eternal optimism of the Clear mind

by Joel Spolsky
Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clear just closed down.

Here’s how it worked while it was in business. You paid $200 for a one-year membership. You underwent a big, complicated background check to prove that you were extra-super-trustworthy.

In exchange, in a few big airports, you got to skip to the front of the TSA line for screening.

Now, you didn’t skip the screening itself. You still went through the X-ray machine and had to remove your shoes, belt, pocket contents, laptops, and plastic quart ziplock bag of toiletries.

You just got to cut to the front of the line.

A few people signed up. In certain airports, it was, indeed, worth actual money to cut to the front of the line.

This wasn’t Clear’s actual business plan. The actual business plan was that Clear would do detailed background checks on travellers, who would then be trusted to bypass security completely because they were extra-super-trustworthy.

Now, the TSA doesn’t even trust pilots, who go through the same screening as the rest of us to make sure they’re not bringing something extraordinarily dangerous onto a plane like a 3.5 oz bottle of shampoo. Because, of course, with a little bottle of shampoo, they could make a bomb, which they could use to fly the plane they are piloting into a building, something that is impossible for mere pilots sitting at the controls of the jet.

So as it turns out, the TSA never actually agreed to go along with this skipping-the-screening thing, and ultimately, all Clear was allowed to do was get you to the front of the line.

At this point, and here’s the interesting part, at this point, a rational businessperson would say, “Well, does the Clear idea still make sense if we can’t actually let you skip the screening?”

OK, maybe it still makes sense to charge to skip to the front of the line. Maybe there’s a business model in that.

In that case, though, why did they still do background checks? It doesn’t make any sense.

The environment changed. It turns out that Clear’s business model of prescreening wasn’t going to be possible. But they kept doing it anyway. What kind of organizational dysfunction does it take to completely ignore the changed circumstances and keep at a money-losing business?

What’s even funnier is that Clear could probably have been profitable if they had just skipped the one unnecessarily stupid part of their business model: the detailed background checks on all their customers.

Nobody at Clear did any thinking. They had a business model, the business model wasn’t actually possible, everybody knew it, and they still plugged away at it. Thoughtless optimism. I don’t know whether to salute ‘em or laugh.


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