I Might Just Take You Up On That
Bombarded with offers to check out start-ups, an entrepreneur accepts a few invitations
We're taught from an early age to be wary of offers from strangers. The trench-coated fellow in the dark sedan, holding out a bag of candy. The trial-size bottle of Tantric Aphrodisiac Drops for Men! For Women! available by clicking on this link. Favors from Marlon Brando or James Gandolfini. Anything advertised on television that promises to "cut the fat."
But my attitude is changing, thanks to an improvisational-acting class I'm taking at Bay Area Theatresports. Improvisers, I've learned, view scenes as a series of offers, in which one actor lays down a situation, a statement, or a gesture that another actor can either "accept" and build upon -- or reject. Theatresports founder Keith Johnstone says that people who block offers are rewarded by the safety they attain, while people who accept offers are rewarded by the adventures they enjoy. That's not a bad philosophy, I figure, so long as you realize that not every Popeil product will thrill like the Pocket Fisherman.
In this newly receptive spirit, I've recently been accepting offers to meet with start-ups eager to capitalize on my expertise. (For those of you tuning in late, I cofounded a viral-marketing company called Gazooba two years ago but left last fall, after our venture capitalists installed a more seasoned CEO. You can read about my experiences at www.inc.com or wait until I release the first season in a boxed set on DVD.) These requests play to my vanity, I confess, as well as to my generosity -- I'm happy to help out when I can -- and to my natural curiosity about what the non-between-ventures world is up to. And maybe there's a little time pressure. I'm about halfway through my severance-pay-supported search for the Next Big Thing, and I have no new business models to show for it. I'm playing trombone with the San Francisco funk band Stymie & the Pimp Jones Luv Orchestra, but after I split gig money with six singers, four horn players, and the rhythm section, it's clear I'll need a day job.
So I was pleased as punch to run into Michael Feldman at a party. As director of partner marketing for an online sporting-goods retailer, Michael had been a potential customer back in my Gazooba days. As CEO of Tools Inc., he was now a potential employer. "Idealab is backing us!" he shouted at me over a live jazz quartet, which at the time was something to shout about. "We should talk."
A few days later I made my way south to Idealab's incubation facility, in Palo Alto. Inside the renovated warehouse about 10 hatchlings formed a circle around a clutch of recruiters and bookkeepers whose services they shared.
In a conference room, Michael explained his business model to me. The good news: it was close enough to Gazooba's that I could be of real help. The bad news: it was close enough to Gazooba's that I could get into real trouble. I had a vision: back home in my sock drawer, the copy of my severance agreement was beginning to smoke, and the words of the noncompete clause glowed a hellish crimson. As I left I wished Michael and his team well.
Not long after my meeting with Tools Inc., a Gazooba investor told me about a "deal in the streaming-media space." (People in the Bay Area refer to start-ups as "deals" or "plays." I prefer "companies" because it suggests that more is going on than a handshake over a few beers.) The CEO of that particular deal, a 29-year-old Harvard Business School grad, invited me to the South of Market loft where she lives and works. There I met two of her partners and heard their plans for revolutionizing the interaction between users and streaming media. While the CEO's cat licked my fingers, I quizzed them about their product development and realized they were just getting started.
In the early days of Gazooba, investors were forever telling us to get back to them when we had a mock-up of the product and someone willing to pay for it. "Get back to me when you have a mock-up of your product and someone willing to pay for it," I told the CEO.
Mark Luden, CEO of the Guitammer Co., of Westerville, Ohio, found me through this column. His eyes apparently had grown misty as he'd read about the decision -- not mine -- to change Gazooba's name to Qbiquity. Luden's attachment to whimsical monikers was unsurprising. His three-partner start-up was better known by the name of its product: the ButtKicker. "Our name also makes people smile, and we're not changing it," Mark wrote in an E-mail. "On a shoestring budget we've created a global brand with sales in 25 countries. Andy, we need help -- your kind of help. Call me day or night."
I chose day. On the phone Mark explained that the ButtKicker was an audio component that allowed users to feel the bass vibrations of a sound track through a seat, for example, or the floor. He directed me to www.theButtKicker.com, where I learned that Time magazine had honored the pineapple-size, metal-encased device by dubbing it "the most precisely named" invention of the year 2000.
"Funding and management are what we need," Mark told me. "We're doing something very real here in the midst of all these nonsensical dot-com business models. No offense," he added hastily.
I arranged to meet Mark at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. At the ButtKicker booth, the movie Contact was playing on a wide-screen TV, and people were taking turns watching it from a ButtKicker-enabled sofa. A heavyset, bearded man approached the booth screaming, "Kick my butt!" Mark, identifiable by his badge, was directly behind him. "As you can see, our target market interacts well with the brand," he observed.
"I don't usually discuss the business plan with people until they've had their butt kicked," Mark told me, but the line at the booth was so long that he made an exception. We went to his hotel room and talked for more than three hours. Mark was trying to figure out the best way to reach the home-theater market and license the ButtKicker's technology. I described my approach to similar situations at Gazooba. He asked if I knew anyone in Silicon Valley that would fund him. I joked that he'd need to spin the ButtKicker story into an enterprise-software play, since that was about all anybody was funding these days. "No problem," he said immediately. "We're an enterprise platform for low-frequency in-home theater." This guy needed my help?
At Mark's booth the next morning, I finally got my turn on the sofa. The kicking commenced, and it was as though I was right there with Jodie Foster traveling through that psychedelic space tunnel to meet the aliens. I felt every gust of wind, every rattle of the spaceship, in my arms, in my legs, and -- yes, by golly -- even in my glutes. As I rose from the couch, Mark approached with some good news. An angel had stopped by to say he loved the ButtKicker and wanted a pitch. A Hong Kong investment group also had expressed serious interest.
That evening I boarded a plane back to San Francisco. Although I didn't know whether I'd have any further involvement with Mark, talking to him had made me nostalgic for the early days of Gazooba. The ButtKicking trio weren't so different from Zen, Shanti, and me back when we were struggling to market our product, rationing our seed cash, and crashing meetings of the National Venture Capital Association wearing neon green fleeces to attract attention.
There was no ButtKicker attached to my plane seat. Had there been, it would have been vibrating to the strains of "Auld Lang Syne."
Andrew Raskin is cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba (now Qbiquity). He is not in stealth mode.
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