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I Want to Be a Millionaire

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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.


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