How I introduced my company to the world at the cost of my personal dignity

A ship has a christening. A debutante has a ball. A Silicon Valley start-up has a launch.

Technically, a launch means a company is rolling out of beta. Symbolically, it's a cry to the world: I'm loud, I'm proud, and I'm ready to be bookmarked! You can consider a dot-com company launched when it discards its stealth name and strips the word preview from its site. If you come across the VP of mar- keting parked by the side of Highway 101 staring dreamily up at billboard ad space, that's a sure sign, too.

The minimum requirement for launching a dot-com business is to issue a press release on PR Newswire that says, "Hey, I'm launching a dot-com business." But a press release is to a launch what a marriage license is to a wedding. Yeah, it's official. But Mom's been dreaming of a big blowout all her life, and you'd be a lout not to indulge her.

When we launched Gazooba, the role of Mom was played by our PR guy, Shel Israel of Sipr. Sitting me down in our conference room last September, Shel set forth our options. " Some companies," he explained, his voice portentous, "launch with a press tour." A press tour, Shel went on, meant cold-calling editors on both coasts. Many would not return our calls. Others would agree to see us for half an hour, during which they would sit cleaning their fingernails with our business card. I began to suspect Shel had a bias.

The other option, Shel explained, looking suddenly like sunshine made flesh, was to launch at a conference. Launching at a conference had two advantages. First, it would allow us to tie our launch to an event. For example, "Attendees at Billionaire 2000 thronged to Booth #321, where Andy Raskin, the smokin' young CEO of smokin' young company Gazooba, was showing off a software product that's low in fat and promises to revolutionize E-business as we know it!" Second, a conference would let us trot down the runway in front of A-list venture capitalists, who might be persuaded to make good on their wolf whistles during our next round of funding.

According to Shel, only four or five industry powwows -- such as Technologic Partners' Internet Outlook, IDG's Demo, and Red Herring Communications' NDA -- were worthy of us. Of those, only NDA remained on the 1999 calendar. But more than 500 companies had applied for 20 slots, and the submission deadline was history. Still, Shel thought NDA was worth a try. He E-mailed a short note about Gazooba to Red Herring Events' staff.

The news was good. The Herring staff had not made its final decisions yet. And John Mecklenburg, Red Herring Events' managing editor, wanted to meet us.

Mecklenburg is Red Herring's Saint Peter. Hopeful dot-com entrepreneurs show up at the company's pearly gates, and Mecklenburg determines who will be admitted to the presence of such venture deities as Ann Winblad, Vinod Khosla, and Steve Jurvetson. On a sunny day last September my new vice-president of business development, Jennifer Kaplan, and I offered up to this keeper of the keys a demo of our service, which allows Web companies to reward visitors who refer friends to their sites.

Meck (as his friends, among whom we desperately hoped to number, know him) was intrigued. "This friend-to-friend thing," he said. "It seems sort of ... Japanese. Does that have anything to do with the fact that you lived in Japan?" I had never connected my time in Tokyo with Gazooba's business model, but in the interest of kissing some Herring butt I assumed my best "You know us better than we know ourselves" look. "Let's just say," I replied, my voice heavy with implication, "it's no coincidence that Zen, one of our cofounders, is Japanese." Meck nodded knowingly.

Soon the E-mail arrived. "Congratulations! The editors at Red Herring have selected your company to present at NDA 99. ... NDA 99 gives 20 CEOs six minutes each to discuss their business strategies in front of an audience that includes only the best and brightest minds in the technology industry."

That night I lay in bed trying to imagine what possible configuration of PowerPoint slides could captivate so many of the best and brightest minds in a mere six minutes. I could just picture the best and brightest fingers scratching the best and brightest heads -- or worse, those heads lolling on the best and brightest necks -- as a succession of CEOs took the stage to jabber on about eyeballs, bandwidth, and the underserved b-to-b marketplace. Despair laid its head on my pillow. But then some part of my subconscious spoke up. I had the solution!

The next morning I met with Shel at my office. "I want to do a mime," I told him." "Fine," he said.

Assuming correctly that I wasn't the kind of guy who had spent his formative years trying to get on Star Search, Shel arranged for some help. It arrived in the form of Chris Melching and Chuck Eudy of Got Moxie Presents Inc., a presentation-coaching company in San Francisco. Chris asked me to tell her about Gazooba. I obliged, with an energy and eloquence that left her barely sentient. "Remember, Andy," Chris exhorted, "as an Internet-company CEO, you are always onstage. Life's a pitch!" Chuck, who hails from Texas, found my hand movements equally uninspiring. "Why don't we begin by practicing some jay-a-stures," he drawled.

During the next two weeks, Jennifer and I learned to sit, shake hands, walk, and talk: invaluable skills we navely thought we already possessed. We rehearsed the mime next to the man-made duck pond behind our office building. Maggie Essman, the account rep Shel had assigned us, doubled as a member of the troupe. I also wrote a brilliant spoken epilogue guaranteed to bring the audience to its feet. At Chris and Chuck's urging, Jennifer and I growled the epilogue like bears, purred it like cats, and screamed it at the top of our lungs. "Must be another dot-com launch," passersby muttered to one another.

On November 1 the grand ballroom of the Four Seasons Resort in Carlsbad, Calif., was crammed with 800 of the best and brightest minds in the technology industry. Meck began announcing the presenters. Company number one took the stage. PowerPoint presentation. Company number two followed. PowerPoint presentation. Company number three. PowerPoint.

We were number six. The lights came up. I walked onto the stage like some cyberage Norma Rae, holding a big sign that read "New Web Site." Jennifer and Maggie walked by. Maggie immediately came over to me. Jennifer kept walking. Like the sites that would become our customers, I tried everything to attract her. I flashed a giant "Click Here" sign. I put a target on her back (suggesting that I was, you know, targeting my message to her). I offered her money. No response.

Then I pleaded with Maggie -- silently of course -- to ask her friend to come over. She did, and lo and behold, Jennifer responded! I rewarded Maggie with a box tied with a bow. There you had it: the power of personal recommendation. A business model we'd labored over for six months clocked in at under six minutes.

Now, depending on whom you talk to, that skit was either the greatest presentation in the history of presentations or the worst idea since the PCjr. Dot-com CEOs swarmed us afterward, and most of them eventually became customers. About a dozen VCs invited me to send along our business plan. Others merely looked confused. Some were clearly cheesed at being denied that 20th PowerPoint presentation.

After the conference we packed our props and flew back to Northern California. As we drove along Highway 101 from the airport, Jennifer leaned out of the car window. "How about that one?" she asked, pointing to a billboard that loomed at the side of the road.

"Let's go for it," I mimed.

Andrew Raskin is the cofounder and CEO of Gazooba Corp., based in Redwood City, Calif.

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