My desire to earn a million dollars probably kicked in a year and a half ago. That’s when I overheard a stray comment from my brother, who’d recently sold his computer company. “It’s a gold rush out there,” he said, and stirred his martini with a finger. You often ran into such fervor back then. Business pages read like sports pages. You could almost hear the cheering. People were starting companies, shaping the future. (And the future was very much in fashion.) Suddenly, it seemed to me as if people, other people, were having the times of their lives.
And me? Why, I was a journalist taking notes on colorful characters, sticking to the periphery. The world, it seemed, was passing me by. I wanted something else. Everybody wants something else. But what? Perhaps my aptitude for wanting had never been high.
Then I knew. The roughhouse of commerce. Yes. Why not? I wanted everything gold rush suggested. I wanted to throw some elbows. I made a motion with my elbows like a washing machine. I did this at a party one night, drink in hand, as I explained to a guy I barely knew how things would go if – where did this inspiration come from? – he were to pitch in. I believed, I think, it would be more fun. Yes, fun was the word in mind. The thing about business was, I always figured I could do it. Finding the time, that was the trick. “How long could it take to make a million dollars?” I wondered aloud. “We’ll give it a year. If it takes ten months, we’ll take two off.”
As far as I knew, this guy was a writer. He had a full head of thick, dark hair, a new novel to sell, and an interesting collection of slight tics. His head seemed to adjust to an ever-more-precise angle. “I’m tic-y,” he said and seemed mildly amused.
“Come on,” I said. I may have been shouting. Who could blame me? I saw my future, a bunch of them. “Let’s make a million dollars.” I liked the precision of the goal. It felt robust, vital, full of possibilities, as if – I can still hardly believe this – it were something original.
He offered to lend a hand. Though he didn’t reveal it at the time – he wasn’t the revealing type – he’d once been an entrepreneur himself. Steve Reynolds would be my business consigliere. So I didn’t have experience? Experience, you got the feeling, would just slow you down. Business – this much was clear – was the new aspirational culture; it was how people became the creative beings they always believed they were.
All I needed was an idea.
“Ideas come from everywhere,” Consigliere reassured me. He’d always be reassuring.
One night, a friend recently back from Japan steered a group of us to a karaoke bar on St. Marks Place. I refused to sing. I never sing. I have an embarrassed boyhood memory of my mother pounding on a bathroom door. Inside, I showered and sang. “Are you all right?” she called. Apparently my voice suggested distress. Still, we stayed at karaoke until four in the morning; everyone had a great time.
“Why not,” my wife suggested, “open a hip-hop karaoke bar?” (She’s good with ideas.) None of the karaoke around New York featured much hip-hop. How weird. After all, hip-hop fans naturally sing along with the music. I have little knowledge of hip-hop, but suddenly it hit me. The Internet is a perfect hip-hop-karaoke-delivery device. I could have smacked myself. I e-mailed Consigliere.
“If you don’t do it, someone else will,” he said, which I took as encouragement.
“Doesn’t karaoke, though, seem a bit, well, goofy?” I asked.
“Oh, let’s just go balls out,” he counseled.
“Fucking thieves,” yells Russell Simmons as he stalks into his office, where I have been waiting with my team for an hour. Russell, co-founder of Def Jam Records, is probably the person most responsible for bringing hip-hop to the mainstream. Less well known is that these days, Russell is into r-e-l-a-x-a-t-i-o-n. He pursues vegetarianism, yoga, the Hamptons – there’s a chest-high waterfall in his office – none of which seem to be doing the job just now. He screams into the phone – actually, into the wire dangling from his ear. He’s apparently talking about a store that carries his fashion line, Phat Farm. “I don’t want that guy in there,” Russell yells angrily, though because he has a gentle lisp, the phrase sounds just a bit comic.
Russell tears open a brown bag of Chinese food he’s been carrying and spreads it on his large desk, creating a kind of rustic place mat.
Noticing my team, he says, “I hope you don’t find it too insulting.”
“No no no,” we chorus.
Consigliere hustles over. The third team member, Peter Clemente, is already seated. He once worked with Consigliere and has since become a leading consultant in the Internet-entertainment field.
Unfortunately, Russell, tawny-skinned, shaved-headed, doesn’t immediately focus on us. “My whole day is meetings,” he announces to no one in particular. “I’ve got record, film, television, clothing businesses, a magazine, a TV show. I have this whole Internet staff that grows every single day. I’m trying to get my round of financing.”
His latest venture, and the cause of much of his anxiety, is a hip-hop Internet company, 360hiphop.com. Russell, I think, would like to suggest that he’s the online leader. “You know, we’re doing a very, very elaborate kind of special, focused hip-hop effort. It’s expansive. It’s mind-boggling. And I mean that. There’s something called IZone. Fun like a roller coaster. IZone has all kinds of meters to use technology to make battles better and more engaging and all kinds of creative stuff.”
I momentarily wonder if Russell has ever seen his site, since his IZone seems to have little more than a crossword puzzle and a phone-in rhyming game.
“Do you think,” I interrupt, “the hip-hop community will go for karaoke?”
Russell is carefully placing bones in a pile – oddly, vegetarian Russell eats Chinese chicken. “What did you say?” he says.
“Hip-hop karaoke,” I repeat, three words I am certain Russell has never heard in an unbroken string.
Clemente jumps in. “We have an exciting, compelling, community-related application utilizing karaoke,” he says. A presentation is loaded on my computer, which sits on Russell’s desk – the only computer on Russell’s desk. (Russell isn’t really a computer person.)
“You got to tell me what I can do for you,” he says dismissively.
He’s finished lunch, packed it away in the trash. He seems about to bolt.
“We’d like you to invest $100,000,” I say impolitely.
Russell leans forward. His bald head looks glossy as a piece of wax. “Can’t,” he says, without batting an eye.
“Okay, then we’d like to build a hip-hop-karaoke lounge on your site,” I say.
“That’s what I wanted to get to,” Russell says, as if, incredibly, he’d all along been herding the conversation this way. “I think it might be a great idea.”
“You do?” I say.
“Sounds like a lot of fun. Sounds like there are a bunch of ways to leverage it.”
Russell goes for his desk phone, which is missing. “Where the fuck’s my phone?” He locates it on the floor. He calls an executive at 360hiphop. “I’m sending over these guys. They have a whole elaborate karaoke plan. I think something good could come of it,” he says, then disappears. As we let ourselves out, we see him in heated conversation, apparently trying to sort out the theft.
It’s February 2000. NASDAQ is robust at 4,500, and the city effervesces with entrepreneurial energy. One CEO I met had been a production designer at Disney one day; the next, he launched his own online TV network. “I have the vision,” he said. Suddenly, everyone had a vision. One day, I phone my dry cleaner about some shirts. The young owner explains he’s recently become an Internet entrepreneur.
“Me too,” I almost shout. He carries over my shirts and pulls up a stool, and I tell him, entrepreneur to entrepreneur, about Karaokenation.com, the domain name I’ve purchased for $119.
Consigliere is devoted to KNation, as I soon take to calling it. (People can’t reliably spell karaoke.) Lately, he’s gotten busy at work – to my surprise, he has a job at an Internet-research company. His mood sags with his busyness. Still, he says he’s looking forward to peeling into a spreadsheet. I’m delighted. I’ve never seen a spreadsheet. “I think I discovered some ways to make money,” he says, and shows me a chart. It’s fantastic. A wavy line climbs precipitously. We appear poised to generate millions of dollars.
Still, I’d like to test the notion on an Internet businessperson. Michael Prichinello, a P.R. guy who seems to know everyone, directs me to Joseph Park, CEO of Kozmo.com, the delivery company he founded at age 26. Not long ago, Park – young, inexperienced, profitless – was named entrepreneur of the year by The Industry Standard. To celebrate, he climbed onto a piano and crowed to employees about a recent feat: Kozmo had raised $250 million from venture capitalists.
“Do you think,” I ask, “the hip-hop world is ready for karaoke?” “What did you say?” Simmons says. “Hip-hop karaoke,” I repeat, three words I am certain he has never heard in an unbroken string.
Consigliere and I head to Kozmo’s Wall Street headquarters. Unfortunately, Consigliere is sick in the most cartoonish way. “I didn’t want to let you down,” he says touchingly. But inhaling seems to nauseate him. I’m on my own, he lets me know. Encouragement is all I need.
Right away, I tell Park I’ve long loved karaoke. Since childhood, I suggest. By now, I understand that exaggeration is permissible in business. “Everything is sales,” Consigliere had alerted me, an insight he illustrated by punching himself in the face.
Park is a short, attentive man with 3,000 employees and some kind of goo in his hair. He gets our idea pretty quickly. “You almost provided too much information,” Park says, then laughs an unusually raucous hah hah hah.
I start to tell Park the different products we’ve conjured up.
Suddenly, Park interrupts. He has an idea. “Go to Japan,” he says suddenly – karaoke is a huge business in Japan.
I think he’s joking. He isn’t. He also thinks I need a great technology partner. “Lock in the technology,” he says. He thinks Sony might be an answer to both issues. Sony. I write that down. He also thinks we need to really focus on how we’re making money. Apparently he doesn’t quite buy the perky revenue chart. “Like right now, I would say, if you asked me what KNation is trying to do,” he says, “I have six or seven different ideas.” Then he laughs that counterintuitive laugh of his. “Focus on one or two and just build that piece out and do that really, really, really well,” he says. “Then you start leveraging what hopefully will be a really strong brand into other categories.”
Though Park has generally, I feel, been favorable, he highlights a few areas for further consideration: technology, markets, revenue, and, oh, yes, one more.
“Get an entrepreneur, someone who’s going to spend every single waking moment building this business,” he says. “One success I’ve had, every time I talk about Kozmo you see the passion.”
So, okay, I add management to my list, just a bit confused that Park has somehow overlooked my own capacity for devotion. After all, when his assistant takes me aside to ask, “Is this satire for the magazine?,” I have a quick, sure reply.
“God, no!” I say sincerely. I have a talent for sincerity. So it’s not particularly worthy. Is strawberry milk? Is Moesha? I’ve crossed some line. Nothing seems to discourage me anymore. I believe hip-hop karaoke is a moneymaker. And belief, as I’m about to learn, is a treacherous thing.
Russell’s executive at 360hiphop really seems interested. She looks forward to the prototype that we assure her is being fast-tracked, an assertion that, as I say it, I magically believe is true. Quickly, I shoot a call over to Sony, per Joseph Park. Why wait? The Internet is a can-do place. I imagine, indeed, I am offering a virtual room where people come and sing to one another.
“You can do that?” Russell had asked.
“Yes,” I said, meaning, it can be done. I’m pretty sure of that.
“You need a really bright 25-year-old programmer,” I’m advised. Luckily, the city crawls with them. By now, though, it’s April, the month nasdaq collapses into a bucket. Programmers want cash, not promises of stock, which I had gleefully typed out this very morning. So I need not just a bright programmer but also one of goodwill. After all, I don’t have much cash to offer – actually, the way I calculate it, none at all.
I contact a musician who’s also a programmer, an appealing combination for a karaoke product. We meet at a small bar where he performs. He’s the one with the silver bull’s-eye painted on his forehead. “To be a bit scarier,” he explains. Unfortunately, he’s off to eastern Germany, where, I understand, he’s very popular.
I contact another programmer, who, I’m told, writes code like a god. David Moxon has oversize eyes, an infrequent smile, and, mostly, an uninflected voice. He looks, I think, like the star of a hostage video. I don’t care. At an East Village coffeehouse, he says these enchanting words: “Yeah, I could build you a prototype.”
Sadly, at our next meeting, he reports he got a cash offer from MTV. And so he says he’d need money up front, about $15,000, which I get the feeling won’t cover much.
Still, it occurs to me I shouldn’t let this one slip away. I’ll hook him, I think, on our shared vision of the future.
“What would you like to be doing in three years?” I say, and point at his pigeon chest.
“Composing music for video games,” he responds, and I get up and walk away.
My left eyelid, I notice, has lately begun to open and close involuntarily – a sign, no doubt, of tension. Still, on most days, I see only possibilities. They float like lottery balls. My lawyers – I have two now – tell me encouraging things, which I believe. CEOs line up to discuss partnerships. It’s all so exciting. Still, real progress is elusive. Often, it seems as distant as radio waves traveling into space. Worse, I have the sense that all around me, others advance.
Even my dry cleaner seems to be doing well.
One day, I run into him in front of his shop. He’s got two deals in the works.
“You’re kidding,” I say glumly.
“We got hold of some missile-assembly technology,” he says.
“You’re in the missile business!” I say, and promise to stop by his operation, headquartered, just now, in the basement of the dry cleaner’s.
I decide to focus on money. (I have a business-school intern, Jimmy Wong, a bright self-starter, who thinks I need $2 million.)
Money-raising is a showier part of the entrepreneurial skill set. Consigliere, who as entrepreneur helped his company, a syndicator of sports and other news, raise $2 million, once explained to me the stagecraft of the pitch meeting. One guy, in an Armani suit, has to be the flash, the visionary; another, the button-down, serious type; a third, slightly knowing, a celebrity perhaps, someone who can casually say, “You know, I was golfing with Quincy the other day, and he really likes this.” As we head into the conference room at Flatiron Partners, New York’s leading VC, I think, Clemente must be the Armani guy. He may have Led Zeppelin hair and little hoop earrings and the deepest facial creases I’ve ever seen, but he wears a gray-green Armani suit, a dark tie, and – I am glad of this – the white (not the black) shirt, which thankfully hides his winged-heart tattoo. Consigliere, despite the longish hair, is the button-down guy. He’s got nothing to prove. He’s been here before – in this very conference room, in fact. (Flatiron at one point considered investing in his company.)
Then there’s me. A friend recently said, “I understand what everyone does except you. Why do they need you?” Lately, I’ve taken to imagining myself the host. I do the introductions. I move things along.
Unfortunately, Jerry Colonna, Flatiron managing partner, doesn’t immediately take to my notion of how things should move. “I’m sorry, is this a karaoke play?” Jerry says with an unsettling pause between karaoke and play.
Jerry may have timed the Internet boom as well as anyone. If, in fact, as one VC told me, “VCs are the new rock stars,” Jerry, and the scale of his profits, have done more than most to glamorize these bankers. So it’s a bit surprising that Jerry – with his square head, scruffy beard, jeans, and deck shoes – looks like a member of the grounds crew.
Recently, Clemente, a vice-president at Cyber Dialogue, posted three karaoke questions on a consumer survey – a $10,000 favor, Consigliere pointed out. According to the results, 11 million American Internet users either own a karaoke machine or have been to a karaoke bar in the past three months. Let’s face it, this is staggering, suggesting that almost 15 percent of adults on the Internet might be a karaoke market.
It’s not a notion Jerry immediately takes to. In fact, despite his relaxed look, Jerry, it seems, might disagree with everything you say – just to see how the challenge goes. “Your market includes me, since my kid got one at Christmas and we did it twice,” he says dismissively. “Having a player doesn’t mean I’m a fan.”
“Critical is interest in using,” counters Clemente. “Fourteen million people have said they’d be interested in singing karaoke online.” That is our other astounding number. “That’s a viable market,” says Clemente.
“Well, it’s the market,” Jerry says dully. “I don’t know if it’s viable.” Jerry’s qualm, which, it’s clear by now, is one of the Internet’s principal business challenges, is this: There may be lots of identifiable online interests, but almost none have produced much revenue.
Clemente, though, is as relentless in his way as Jerry. He, as Consigliere will later point out, makes CEO-ish statements, the unprovable kind that VCs like to hear. “These numbers say to us that people online are interested in being interactive, they’re interested in getting more control over their entertainment, including music,” he says. “And that includes being able to sing along in a community with their friends.”
Jerry, it’s clear, is not going to write a check, but in the end, he seems impressed with at least one thing. “You,” says Jerry, motioning to Clemente, “seem pretty jazzed.”
“I am,” Clemente says resolutely.
Which I hadn’t necessarily known. Suddenly, I think to myself: CEO.
June’s upon us, and I’m running out of time. “I’m surprised you’re still going,” Consigliere tells me in an unguarded moment. I am a bit frantic. I plug my concept, my catchphrase, to whoever will listen, and yet, often enough, I feel (I can’t help it) like Consigliere’s salesman, the one taking it in the face. “You’re the entrepreneur who lives and breathes it,” one CEO reminds me. So the Internet is lately less congenial to such beliefs. Buckle down. Believe harder. Another CEO I know scheduled 40 meetings a day – and made them all! That’s the spirit. Unfortunately, the thought makes me woozy. Sometimes, though, I do three a day. And on those days, I sometimes manage to connect the sense and feeling of want with karaoke, which is as wonderful to me as any phenomenon – weather, or the Internet itself. On such days, my mood soars. One break, just one, I think. Just, I tell myself, get a CEO. And so on a rainy Friday afternoon six months into this project, a meeting of “team karaoke,” as I now think of it, is arranged. Consigliere has promised to help hammer his friend Clemente into taking the job. Suddenly, I can feel the enterprise, its shrubby outlines, coming into focus.
We assemble at the Giraffe, the hotel where Clemente stays when in from his Palm Springs home. Preemptively, Clemente removes his sunglasses, clears his throat, eyes Consigliere.
“You,” he says, “ought to be CEO of KNation.”
Clemente confided that he found Consigliere depressed – he does seem burdened by his quantity of work. And Clemente, bless him, is convinced that the best thing for Consigliere’s flagging mood is to walk off his job and run KNation.
Consigliere pushes a hand through his abundant dark hair. His slight tic is working, quick as a camera shutter. He turns to Clemente.
“You should be CEO, it’s a great opportunity,” he says.
“You’ve got to get out of there,” Clemente counters.
“Leave the analyst business,” Consigliere shoots back.
I know Consigliere could do the job. He has presence, a biting intelligence, varied experience. He’s been journalist, entrepreneur, analyst. He was around at the beginning of Silicon Alley. He’s been on MacNeil-Lehrer. No doubt he’d prefer to be a novelist; still, I know, he likes his job’s solid prospects. Of course, he loves KNation, though I’m pretty sure it’s the caper he finds irresistible. “Are you having fun?” he sometimes asks me, recalling my initial impulse, and then says, “Let’s get Prince involved.”
Clemente, by contrast, is restless to succeed – even as a college rocker, he attended classes, then played three gigs a night. In fact, he’s restless in a literal way: He sleeps as little as four hours a night. It’s dread insomnia, though he puts the extra hours to use, reading business books, writing his own, turning himself into, as he says, “an Internet evangelist.” Clemente has faith in the fruitfulness of effort, an optimism neither Consigliere nor myself can always muster. He, too, believes fervently in KNation. Once, he said he wanted Consigliere to “believe in karaoke the way I do.” No one, though, can believe the way Clemente does. He has a talent for belief. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s a thing he wills in those late-night sessions, or if he simply has an extra match-tip of adrenaline. People get it wrong. Life isn’t arduous; there’s no struggle, hardly any. You almost never need courage, and you don’t need hope. But belief, belief turns the key. And Clemente has it as easy as floating.
Consigliere starts in again. “You need an entrepreneurial experience,” he says. “It makes you grow.” Clemente, I know, would like those three letters – C-E-O – after his name. But Cyber Dialogue has (inconveniently, to my mind) filed to go public. Clemente is in line for a windfall. So he has a counterproposal.
If Consigliere won’t run embryonic KNation, then Clemente wants him to interview at Oddcast, a young technology company he’s met. He’s been talking Consigliere up as CEO.
“It’ll be out of business in six months,” Consigliere says reflexively.
“Take the meeting,” urges Clemente. Oddcast, it’s pointed out, might be a great company to build an online-karaoke product.
“Okay,” says Consigliere. “I’ll pitch KNation real hard.”
“And refresh your résumé,” says Clemente.
“What’s wrong with my résumé?” asks Consigliere, handing me a copy.
NOT JUST A POET TRYING TO PASS are the first elusive words.
On my first visit to Oddcast’s office, a pearly-gray light filters through two walls of windows – there are no overhead lights – and seems to fill the former sweatshop with fog. Adi Sideman, 31, a founder, and Consigliere finish their chat, during which my partner intimates we are about to make a stunning top-level hiring. (He figured Clemente would soon come around.) Then Adi, an Israeli, shows off his talented technologists – there’s a staff of almost twenty – before leading us to a conference table snatched from an attorney’s discard pile.
Adi, an enthusiast generally, has, I quickly learn, an unresponsive mode. As I chatter on about karaoke, Adi stares, as forthcoming as snow. I finish; Adi remains silent. We wait, listening to the scrape of distant traffic. In a moment, he makes a buggy noise I’ve never heard before. “Ihhh,” he says. A preamble, it turns out. “It’s a great fit,” he says, to my relief. “We could take you to our music clients. They would love it.”
It’s the first really positive news in a while. If I could just get Oddcast to build something, then, I know, I can sell it – sell the hell out of it, is what I actually think. Then perhaps Clemente will sign on, and – who knows? – money will come. And so, a few weeks later, when Adi invites me to his East Village apartment next to a precision body-piercing shop, I am filled with hope, a demanding emotion. We sit on two small couches, most of the apartment’s furniture as far as I can tell. The place, I notice, has a faint odor. “Beer,” Clemente had warned me. But rain beats pleasantly against a skylight and Adi opens a bottle of whiskey. Fellow Israelis breeze in and out of a far door. “Captain,” Adi says, nodding seriously at one. “The Unit,” he says of another, referring to an Israeli secret service. A third was in naval intelligence. Adi himself had been an Army special-forces paratrooper.
When, casually, to break the ice, I ask if Adi, a former military man, favors peace with the Arabs, he sneers. Adi has quite a toothy sneer. “The only people who aren’t for peace,” he says, “are those who never had to beat women and children,” something I suddenly imagine Adi doing.
“Wow,” I think, “we haven’t even started talking business.”
Adi explains that he is the originator of his company’s flagship product, the VideoMixer, an online tool that allows anyone to edit his own video. He created the prototype while a master’s student at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. (Initially, he’d been a film student at NYU, where he gained minor celebrity as the filmmaker behind Chicken Hawk, an award-winning documentary about a man-boy-love society.) Normally, I like the entertaining parts of stories. I like Adi’s, its suggestion of progress. But in a minute, I start to worry, doubly so because I sense that worry, usually very dependable, won’t do me much good. I plunge in.
“Oddcast needs another product,” I begin dramatically, introducing a theory by which Oddcast needs KNation.
Adi, in response, slips into his unresponsive mode. For all I know, he’s suddenly gone mystic on me and is pining for the end.
“What else are you doing?” he asks finally. “What are you writing?”
This, I’m sure, is a trap. Commitment is a test. I won’t fall for it. “KNation,” I snap. “That’s what I’m doing.”
“I recommend you don’t do it,” says Adi, adding glumly, “I want my life back.”
Not me. I’m ready to surrender mine. That was the point. One of them. Will Oddcast build me a karaoke application? That’s what I want to know. But Adi, and this is the simple truth, can’t afford to, not on spec. Oddcast is running out of money. Adi does have a thought, though. I’m setting up meetings for karaoke. Why not go together? he wonders. Oddcast could use meetings. We’ll tell potential customers that if they like karaoke, the concept, then Oddcast, creator of the VideoMixer, which Adi will demonstrate, is just the company to build it. Oddcast gets a shot at selling its products; I appear to have a technology company behind me.
It’s a quarter-step, maybe a half-. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Consigliere sometimes reminds me. By now, eight months after I set out, nasdaq, flighty thing, will soon begin another descent. I desperately need something to suggest the possibilities of my whole elaborate karaoke plan. Plus Adi agrees to build me a demo. Perhaps this is, as I’ve learned to say, synergy. And maybe, too, that unlikely thing, goodwill.
Nothing discourages me anymore. I believe hip-hop karaoke is a moneymaker. And belief, as I’m about to learn, is a treacherous thing.
Then Adi says one of those airy, unfathomable thoughts he sometimes comes up with. “I will make it my mission to advance the KNation cause,” he says. Later, I’ll realize this was a very funny thing to say. At the moment, though, the possibilities are irresistible. Then Adi’s cell rings. A friend, another Israeli – a captain? A lieutenant? – is on her way, and so I duck out into the rain.
Yesterday I got the call. Chuck D, founder of Public Enemy, would be available at the Hilton. At the last minute – how typical! – I was told Chuck had to scoot off to the airport. That’s when I volunteered: Let me take him to the airport.
Now, in the black LTD, Chuck and I chat easily. I’m at ease. But then, Chuck, a seminal hip-hop star, founder of Rapstation.com, is 40, has kids, lives on Long Island. This morning, he drove his wife, an airline attendant, to the airport.
Of course, I’d love to hear almost anything from the guy who helped change a generation’s music. “Welcome to the Terrordome.” Fear of a Black Planet. Powerful stuff. But halfway to the airport, I am desperately searching for a segue. Our driver enters the tunnel. I think, Terrific lighting. Yes, perfect for a laptop demo.
“So anyway, Chuck,” I say suddenly and unsheathe my laptop. Chuck must have seen a fair amount in his life. Still, he appears surprised. “Take a look at this,” I say with a just-occurred-to-me tone. I show him Oddcast’s demo, which is terrific.
Chuck loves the demo. He does. He says he does.
“Hip-hop,” he says, “is karaoke.”
Of course it is.
Unfortunately, as I drop Chuck off at La Guardia, he lets me know he won’t pay for the application.
One evening, at a Chinese restaurant, Clemente, in that sandpapery voice of his, shares startling news. He’s going to be CEO of Oddcast. What?! Hadn’t we had a conversation? In the back of a cab? Hadn’t he invited me to his Upper West Side apartment – the eerie one with nothing but a bed, a lamp, a family photo? Where we discussed it again? Somehow I was certain Clemente was destined to take over KNation. In fact, I’d lately been telling people he was my CEO! (“I thought it was the strongest element of your business plan,” said my forlorn intern.)
Apparently, though, Adi flew to Palm Springs, met Clemente’s wife, and then put it to him. I could just imagine how he said it: “Pe-e-ter, we want you to be our CEO.” (Conveniently, Clemente’s employer had withdrawn its public offering.)
When, sulkily, I tell Consigliere that Oddcast nabbed Clemente, he puts a good face on the news. “That can’t be bad for KNation,” he says. (For a depressive, he can be annoyingly upbeat.)
To me, though, it seems calamitous. I’m over a barrel. I’d started this as a romp, a fun thing to do with friends. Lately, I have needs, a pile of them, and they are terrible, insistent things; and now my friends aren’t quite on my side anymore.
Clemente calls frequently. He imagines that KNation could be a division of Oddcast. Or a product line. He has all kinds of ideas. “Yes, yes,” I respond enthusiastically. Business is a bit of a con. Truth is, I feel a bit desperate. I now need Oddcast more than ever – and Clemente, too.
Suddenly, we are a trio – Adi, Clemente, and I attend meetings with prospective clients. Danny Goldberg, signer of Nirvana, ex-head of Atlantic Records, now chief of his own small record label, has a somewhat offbeat reaction. “I don’t give a fuck about the Internet,” he says, then walks out, showing us the saggy backside of his jeans.
Other meetings go better. Jerry provides an introduction to Urban Box Office, one of his companies, which, with its 300 employees, would like to be a black AOL. CEO Adam Kidron immediately suggests ways to incorporate karaoke onto his site, and he loves the VideoMixer. It’s a great meeting and so is hookt.com, which has amalgamated Puff Daddy’s and Slim Shady’s sites. I know hookt co-founder Chas Walker used to pride himself on brusqueness. In our meeting, though, he is warm, affable. (And in fact, a week later, we end up in a chummy embrace outside his office – though, on reflection, I may have botched the handshake.) As Adi’s demonstration gets under way, Walker excitedly pulls people into the meeting. Then he says, “Where do we go now?”
Once outside, I’m buoyant. “Good news,” I say. Adi, typically serene, says, “We hope all news is good news.” Apparently, he’s been in hot meetings before and then nothing happened. One thing, though, does happen. Clemente wants Oddcast and KNation to come to an agreement.
Talks are set for a Japanese restaurant where you take off your shoes and, with a shiver of vulnerability, dip your feet in a dark hole under the table. Adi looks a bit disheveled. His shirt, flowery cruisewear, is untucked. He hasn’t shaved. Sometimes I think about how six months into Adi’s entrepreneurial life, Oddcast received a buyout offer. He would have been a millionaire. “I lost sleep on that,” he said in a tone so flat I was sure he’d lost none at all.
Clemente wears a black suit and looks like a mod undertaker. (They’re quite a pair: Clemente, who owns 31 suits, and Adi, who, proudly, owns none.) On the table, Clemente lines up three cell phones – he has a complicated system of outgoing and incoming calls. He wears dark sunglasses, which he keeps on. “Conjunctivitis,” he explains.
For me, this is a portentous moment, a culmination. I’ve been talking to my lawyer, who imagines I’ll be offered a healthy stake in Oddcast.
“Then,” he said, “you can do what you do best.”
I found myself waiting. “Vision. Creativity,” he snapped. “That’s your edge.”
I think of this as we are seated. I think that, finally, I will have a technology company, a grand one, to build my product.
Then Adi, between sakes one and two, explains that Oddcast must own the program, which means he intends to own the product – and in short order, I realize that my technology company has me! I could shout, and briefly consider doing just that, there in the restaurant. “No, you won’t take karaoke from me!” Something along those lines. Would that be the tone to strike? Suddenly, though, I’m distracted. Adi appears to have developed an aversion to his shirt. He’s standing, shoeless; holes show in his socks. He is unbuttoning his shirt. He is about to take it off. Perhaps it is somewhat hot. There’s a lot of emotion. Is this how business goes?
“You want to make me a glorified salesman,” I say finally.
“No, no,” they say together. Adi has returned to his seat.
“You are our partner,” says Adi, who then lies flat on his back, belly up, a bit undone.
Clemente has big plans for karaoke and Oddcast, which he now talks of together. I still consider my options, though they are depressingly few. Lately I feel as peripheral as when I’d first imagined the roaring adventure of business. Then a thought occurs to me. Clemente is eager to raise money. “My mission,” he calls it. It’s September and not the best time to entice Internet capital – nasdaq is about to take another dive. Clemente may feel some pressure. Having learned that Internet lawyers are conduits to venture capital, I usher Clemente and Adi in to my lawyer John Mancini, a leader of the high-tech practice at Salans. This, I hope, may work to my advantage.
“I’ve managed to get us a good conference room,” Mancini says in an intimate, sporty voice. Then he leads us to what may be the largest conference room I’ve ever seen. It is easily 40 feet long, 20 feet wide, and is filled end-to-end with one magnificent table and 30 heavy chairs – footmen, it occurs to me, might be needed.
Adi and Clemente are impressed. You can tell. Clemente, dapper as ever, is a bit more tired than usual, which is saying a lot. But he swings into command mode, revving up his tiny laptop. Adi, looking windblown, goes for his computer, too.
“We want to be the dial tone of the New Economy,” begins Clemente, pitching for all he’s worth. It’s a bold, semi-ridiculous statement. Here’s a virtual start-up laying out a grand vision at a time when visions seem passé. Clemente once told me that in the face of doubt, you must show you believe. I’m sure he’s right. People are attracted to belief. Still, I momentarily wonder if he’s lost his mind.
Mancini, though, casually crosses his legs. “I get it,” he says, which is actually an Internet thing to say. In the Internet, there are people who get it and people who don’t. “I’m confident I can help you raise money,” he says, “at least get you in the room,” which will be this splendid room.
Mancini smiles and then, it seems to me, moves in for the kill. His voice may lower a note. “I’d like to mention this to a few investors,” he says and, as if that weren’t enough, adds, “with your permission.” With your permission. That really gets me. Clemente scribbles a note to send Mancini investor kits.
Then Mancini says, “I understand you’re working on a deal with Steve,” referring to me.
“He’s your lawyer?” says an amazed Adi, who’s apparently missed this detail.
Mancini lets them know that he, of course, can’t help them until they have a deal with me – which will prove the only leverage I’ll ever have.
We have more talks. I bring in Consigliere. Clemente briefly worries that I’ll want to find another technology company, which briefly I consider. Truth is, over a year into this, my desires circle another objective. I’ve had 185 meetings, ten times as many phone calls – perhaps not a lot by Internet standards. For me it is a ton. I remember asking Consigliere if we were throwing elbows. “Yes,” he said. That was months ago. Lately, I think about Adi’s lament. How he wants his life back.
I’ve lived for a while in the environs of the Internet, a place that once looked favorably on shiny ventures like mine. These days, the charmed entrepreneurial life is everywhere under attack. No one is going to fund me at this point – I know that by now. The hip-hop field is getting hammered. Bloated UBO, Jerry’s entry, will soon collapse. Russell – finally finding relaxation – gets out just in time. It’s labeled a merger, but his 360hiphop is being run by BET.com. Hookt merges with another urban site and will even raise $5 million, though it’s in survival mode.
“Let them all hurry and fucking go out of business,” Adi snaps one day.
The Internet will stick. There’s no turning back. (I’ve become a bit of an evangelist myself.) But as identity changer, the New Economy may have run its course. Everybody had once been CEO. Markets that once laid claim to the future – that mesmerizing term – have shut down. Recently I asked a young CEO about fun, a onetime preoccupation of mine. “Business is about as much fun as fistfighting,” he said. Business seems a lot more grueling these days, a lot more like business. In the Internet, the growth sector seems to be enterprises that chart Internet failures. Even passionate Joseph Park was removed as Kozmo CEO not too long before Kozmo shut down. (And my dry cleaner is back behind the counter.)
This, I realize, is that storied moment, the one you always hear about: It is the nick of time. My wants, like a dropping glass, collapse on one purpose. I want out. One delightful day, Adi tells me, “I have incentive, too,” referring to a potential relationship with Mancini. The incentive is still largely on my side. But I get some maneuvering room, and on March 5, 2001, after three months of talks, my deal – that wonderful word – is signed. I’ll get 5 to 10 percent of future karaoke sales and 10,000 shares of Oddcast.
It’s not a million dollars. But Consigliere thinks it’s terrific. (And, secretly, I find myself believing that it will help pay for my kid’s college education.) Plus, I’ve finally turned this over to people with a shot at pulling it off. Oddcast is the right home for KNation. Adi, always a bit more cunning than he lets on, has a knack for assembling talent. Business isn’t intellectually difficult, but putting it together seems a miracle. Clemente, the entrepreneurial monk – that’s how I think of him in that empty apartment – is a CEO, the one he long wanted to be. Soon will come the stunning news that in this unfavorable climate, he’s lined up a deal for venture capital – $2.5 million from Universal Vivendi – that even impresses Consigliere. To top it off, Oddcast secures a karaoke customer. In early summer, Getmusic.com, the second-biggest music site on the Internet, launches Oddcast’s karaoke application.
Not too long ago, Oddcast built a karaoke prototype – now the Oddcast Karaoke Station – the one I’d once promised to show Russell’s executive, and so I take it to 360hiphop.com. I sit with three executives, and because no one else is willing, and because I am oh-so-eager – an eagerness that still amazes me – to see this thing spread through the world, I take the mike. It is my karaoke debut. The music starts. I sing: I want to be a part of it, New York, New York.