When Billions Are On the Line, So Are They
Many entrepreneurs are impatient by nature but John Winslow pays his employees to wait around all day. In the course of a year, the part owner and general manager of Linestanding.com orchestrates the movements of about 1,000 people, who stand in line on behalf of lobbyists looking to get into Congressional hearings. Winslow spoke to Inc. about how 9/11, e-mail attachments, and a freshman senator almost killed his business, and how The Daily Show saved it.
How did Linestanding.com get started?
We grew out of a courier service called Quick Messenger Service, which has been in business since about 1985 in Washington, D.C. In the late 80s and early 90s we would get these once in a blue moon requests to go down to Capitol Hill [and wait in line]. But line standing was just an afterthought.
When did line standing become the main breadwinner?
After 9/11 our business just nosedived. The big change was the anthrax letters. The response on the part of Capitol Hill authorities was to basically shut down the Hill for deliveries. We suddenly had all these bicycle messengers sitting around all day and we realized that, wow, we've got to find other ways to make money. The other thing that was hurting us was the advent of large e-mail attachments. [So we set out] to legitimize the whole process [of line standing] because up until this point, it was considered to be this black art and people didn't feel quite like it was a legitimate service.
Who thought it wasn't legit?
[Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill (D)] came out and said that we were changing the way that the public was supposed to be allowed to get into these hearings. She even got so far as to put a bill together that would outlaw the service if it ever got passed. Of course, we do nothing to eliminate or limit other people [from] trying to attend these hearings. The Daily Show actually ran a piece on this where they sent one of their reporters down to Capitol Hill [to interview line standers]. It kind of came off as 'Don't senators have anything better to do rather than worry about these little people that are holding spots in line for lobbyists.' We think that actually might have been a turning point.
What motivates your customers to get into these hearings?
These hearings are critical for them. The main thrust of what they're trying to accomplish can only legitimately be done by attending these hearings and having that real-time information exchange take place. I often think to myself why they don't simply go to C-SPAN and catch the hearing on closed caption TV? And I think the reason is because it's just not the same as being there.
How much do you pay the people who stand in line and how much do the lobbyists generally make by comparison?
The average Washington lobbyist makes about 300k a year. I pay my line standers between $12-16 per hour depending on how long they've been with me and other factors. We charge $36 per hour, so I'm basically paying out a little less than half of what I'm charging. Most of my line standers are very happy to work for me and they tell me this. You know I don't really govern them in terms of what they do while they're in line. I ask them to be presentable you know, please smell nice, use deodorant, dress appropriately. As I said when I first started doing this, I was using bicycle messengers and they would often clash [with the other people waiting to get into the hearings] just the way you'd expect.
Aside from lobbyists looking to get into a hearing are there any other occasions where people use your services?
Occasionally, we get the funny request for the big, big blockbuster movie premiere. We got a call recently when the Twilight movie was coming out. A couple of years ago when the Harry Potter movie first came out it was a big, big deal.
Are you aware of any businesses like this outside of the DC area?
I've got to think there are people in New York City who are doing this because that seems to me the one place where people have the disposable income to pay someone else to wait in a long line. Plus, there are enough events in New York City that generate business. But really I haven't heard about it happening much outside of our little realm of Capitol Hill. There's so many little subtle nuances to what we do on Capitol Hill that for the average entrepreneur, the learning curve would be too great.
So someone couldn't take your idea and open up shop in, say, L.A. or Chicago?
I don't actually think our business could work anywhere else because without Capitol Hill, I just don't see us making it. And it's very much a feast or famine kind of thing. Right now we're feasting because we've got [the Toyota hearings] but if it weren't for Toyota we'd probably be sitting on our hands.