Where Have All the Dot-Commers Gone?
Letter From Silicon Valley
About once a week I go out with the Pro Leisure Tour, a bunch of Bay Area ex-dot-commers who get together for coffee, movies, and other poor substitutes for a full and rewarding workday. The Tour started out as an elite club for newly free and empowered individuals. Now that all the work is gone, it's an excuse for people to get out of their pajamas. Sometimes we meet for 11 a.m. poker at the Grove -- the Marina's sorority-girl salad hangout -- although the highest ante anyone can afford is about four Jujubes.
One recent Wednesday I was running late for a Tour event at the Embarcadero -- a matinee of Hedwig and the Angry Inch -- so I hailed a cab. En route I asked my driver how business was going, since I'd heard that San Francisco cab revenues were down 50% from last year's. The cabbie, it turned out, wasn't in a position to make any comparisons. The year before he had been working as a contract recruiter for HearMe, a provider of live-voice technology for the Internet, which announced in July that it would cease operations and sell its assets. But he did hold forth at some length about the hiring process at high-tech start-ups, of which he had a poor opinion. "I used to work in financial services, which was a lot easier because they would have one supreme being making hiring decisions," he said. "At these high-tech companies, they have a committee make the call, but six people can make the same dumb decision that one person can."
When I was CEO of online-marketing company Gazooba Corp. (now called Qbiquity Corp.), I used to grovel before people like that cabbie, showering them with $100-an-hour fees plus stock options in the desperate hope of landing a database architect, say. Still, I respected the guy for picking up the pieces and finding a way to put some money in his pocket. As I paid my fare, he told me that he expected the job market to improve in a year or so and hoped one day to return to recruiting. "I don't know that driving a taxi has a great future," he said. "I made a nice chunk of change before, without a lot of aggravation."
The self-reinvention theme surfaced again during the film, which was about a transsexual singer who overcomes a broken heart, copyright infringement, and other challenges (it wasn't always an inch) to find true love and stardom. Chatting with my fellow Tourists after the show, I learned that Hedwig and the cabbie weren't the only ones remaking themselves in the face of adversity. One woman brought up the example of a former high-tech-magazine writer who was training to be a dominatrix. "She was going to a place in San Mateo or someplace Silicon Valley like that," the woman said. "I don't know if it's all whips and chains, but it's some kind of dominant work."
My friend Carla, a onetime consultant to the dot-com stars, is researching a new product idea with the help of a career-life coach in Boulder, Colo., whom she phones once a week. As old habits die hard, Carla was in stealth mode with the project. But when I told her I was interested in professional reincarnations, she didn't hesitate. "You should talk to my friend the Doggie Dentist," she said.
The Doggie Dentist, it turned out, was 33-year-old Kimberly Testa. Kimberly used to work at Alexa Internet, a software company that Amazon.com acquired in 1999 for more than $250 million in stock. Kimberly had gotten laid off in March. "I spent two months licking my wounds from the torture," Kimberly told me when I reached her by phone. "And by torture I don't mean the layoff. I mean the dot-com-in-general torture. I went from salesperson to project manager to media buyer to trade-show coordinator, with a different job every month. I'd work eight days a week to get something done, and then I'd find out it was irrelevant because the company had changed strategy again."
Kimberly had longed for a career that would "put a smile on my face -- where I would know at the end of the day that I'd accomplished something that mattered to someone." One day she brought her cat, Rufus, to the vet, where she met a woman doing anesthesia-free teeth cleaning. Intrigued, Kimberly struck a licensing deal with the woman, who was based in San Diego. The teeth cleaner would train Kimberly to whiten up those Old Yellers, and Kimberly would pay the woman a percentage of her business for five years.
Having mastered the art of holding an animal in a towel and saying "Sit," "Stay," and "Good doggie" as if she meant business, Kimberly posted a sign-up sheet for her services at Alpha Dog, a pet store in Mill Valley. By the end of the first day she had a day's worth of appointments and was soon booked solid two months out. "It's all word-of-mouth marketing," said Kimberly. "People don't want to put their pets to sleep during the cleaning, but I don't know a lot of people who like their dog's breath. So there's a lot of demand." At $75 a cleaning (or more if the need for a doggie mint is severe), Kimberly projects annual revenues of more than $80,000 -- and that's for scraping tartar just three days a week. To grow the business, she wants to offer her services in pet-grooming shops.
Kimberly finds her new customers easier to deal with than her former colleagues. At Alexa, "nobody knew what they were doing, especially with the direction changing so much," she says. "With these animals, I clean their teeth, I give them a doggie treat, and they wag their tails. The relationship is very clear."
Not every apple has fallen as far from the dot-com tree as Kimberly has. Former Qbiquity marketing director Paul Allen (loyal readers of this column will recall that, no, he's not that Paul Allen) remains part of the tech start-up scene, albeit in a very different role. When I hired Paul as employee number five, back in 1999, I didn't know that he had already achieved some local prominence by throwing Jewish networking parties: so-called Jewcrew events. He also operates a message board (www.Jewniverse.com) that is a kind of Craig's List for the Jewish community, publishing listings of jobs, apartments, and things for sale, as well as book, movie, and restaurant reviews. At the height of the dot-com frenzy, friends and people who knew Paul through his Jewcrew and Jewniverse activities began E-mailing their business plans to him. "They considered me the master networker," he says.
After leaving Qbiquity, in December, Paul announced to his Jewcrew and Jewniverse comrades that he was launching something called the Tribe of Angels, a group for accredited investors, entrepreneurs, and vendors with an interest in the Jewish community. Within a week 50 investors and 30 entrepreneurs had joined the Tribe.
Paul held the first Tribe of Angels party at the San Francisco Park Hyatt in January. He has since held four Tribe events, and word has gotten back to him that investors and entrepreneurs are indeed hooking up at the shindigs. Entrance fees from the events and advertising revenues from his E-mail newsletter, TribeWire, cover the Tribe of Angels' operating costs. But Paul wants to get more involved in the deal flow he's generating and to work closely with both sides of the funding equation. Paul's idea is to hold private angel-investor briefings in which he'd present companies that are seeking funding to investors, à la Silicon Valley's famous Band of Angels. After doing some research, however, Paul has found that with only a master's degree in social work, he isn't yet qualified to take finder's fees on deals. "There were some SEC requirements about that," he says.
As Paul studies for his Series 7 exam, Kimberly massages the gums of a basenji, and a former tech writer whips something other than hyperbolic verbiage into submission, I find myself feeling strangely hopeful. Perhaps -- like a California redwood sapling that sprouts up through fire-scorched earth -- a (dare I say it?) new economy is rising from the ashes in Silicon Valley. An economy where the Internet is just another medium. Where not everything is about stock options. Where Kimberly Testa -- not to mention her customers -- can smile at the end of the day.
Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and former CEO of Gazooba Corp. (now Qbiquity Corp.) and a contributing writer for Inc. Though he is not a dog, he could get used to the idea of being held in a towel while someone brushes his teeth.
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