2001: A Space Odyssey

SAN FRANCISCO (01/04/2000) - I'm having a high-fat breakfast at Il Fornaio in San Francisco with George, the smuggest man in the world. He doesn't have a dot-com. He's not a 22-year-old entrepreneur. He doesn't want to make insanely great products. He's 50, fat, happy and has something that everyone really wants.

"Michael, here's my Net play. This is about controlling key resources when the low cost of capital makes starting a business about as tough as starting your car."

He waves to the rock-star waiter, who glides over and services his coffee cup with rapt attention.

"So how does it start? Joe Schmo stops waiting for Quake III to come out on the Macintosh and has a stupid idea for a business: Sell umbrellas online. He rings Jane, Jack and Jill Schmo, who have terrible jobs in finance, marketing and engineering at Sun, Oracle and some hardware company no one's ever heard of.

They do bong hits on the second floor of some San Francisco triplex with windows featuring uniquely curved antique glass, and boom, it's the next wannabe Amazon.com. Big whoop-de-do."

He waves hungrily to a tall blonde woman outside.

"You know her?" I ask.

"Sure. Fixed her up in a hot little South of Market deal. She can live-work my space any day. Anyway, Joe Schmo shared an A-frame at Stanford with Dick Dollar, whose daddy is a big shit on Sand Hill Road, and Dickie got a free pass through the MBA factory and ended up in the mailroom at some Valley VC firm.

Dick goes skiing in Tahoe one weekend and breaks his leg, and he has five minutes in the hospital waiting room where his cell phone doesn't work and he actually has an idea, which totally freaks him out. He sets up his own venture firm. Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing: Suddenly a new Kleiner Frigging Perkins is born."

I meet a lot of interesting characters in my line of work, and, apart from that, I usually enjoy it. "Go on," I say.

"So Joe Schmo the umbrella wunderkind rings up Dick Dollar, and they play Super Mario over at Dick's Pacific Heights condo, smoke a huge chubby and decide that they just have to get into bed together. Dick's new VC fund is basically his trust fund, his Visa card and his supermarket coupons all rolled into something that's beyond dumb money. I'm talking the dumbest money in the world, Ivana Trump money. ... Anyway, this sage financial institution gives Joe $30 million and cab fare."

Then George does something that I've never seen anyone do before, at breakfast, in San Francisco, at 9:30 in the morning: He pushes back his plate and lights a cigar. Nobody says a word.

"Now Joe Schmo has $30 million, and Jane, Jack and Jill hole up in Dick's spare room, which works for about a week. Then they get a rental unit in SoMa, and Jane, Jack and Jill hire all their friends until they run out of space. Then they move into slightly less shitty office space downtown because they're going up in the world. Jane, Jack and Jill hire all the people they've ever worked with and soon they run out of room again.

"They've spent all the money, but Dick Dollar is so unbelievably dumb that he gives these jokers more cabbage to protect his franchise in the land rush to stake out turf in the online umbrella wars. So they get another $20 million.

And magazines like yours stick Joe Schmo on the cover and do little sidebars on his innovative business model, which basically involves new technology for pulling the wool over the eyes of people like Dick Dollar and a growing audience of gullible online investors."

"For the record," I demur, "we've never actually put an umbrella vendor on our cover."

"Don't wait too long. I know Upside has one in the works. At any rate, Jane, Jill and Jack hire everyone they've ever met while sharing an elevator or a taxi, then everyone in San Francisco with an SUV, and pretty soon they've got a gazillion people on payroll. So what do they need? A big, new building with plenty of parking for all those big new SUVs bought with Internet Economy monopoly money. That's where I come in."

He slaps his large, expensively shirted stomach with the ease of a man no longer even pretending to have once been thin.

"I got the big boxes -- 400 occupancy, 600 occupancy! Tower blocks! City blocks! And JoeSchmo.com wants 'em. Who's my favorite client? Young, dumb and full of dot-com. Ba-da-bing, ba-da-boom! Forget the virtual land rush; this is a real land rush."

I was going to ask George if he knew of any cool office space available in the city immediately, but decided against it.

Rapidly expanding Internet Economy firm seeks new premises. Send floor plans to michaelp@thestandard.com.

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