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Excerpt: Karaoke Nation

Steve Fishman's book tells of his year as an internet entrepreneur. Here's the moment when the magazine writer decided to become a businessman.

By Steve Fishman - May 16, 2003

I have a pretty good idea where business started for me. The why is fuzzier. I was at a Tribeca loft attending a midweek cocktail party, an after-work fundraiser for a worthy politician without a chance. There were perhaps 30 people at the party, broken into small groups. I stood near a long, gray counter. Really, the entire apartment seemed as gray as a factory floor. "It needs updating," I could imagine my wife, Cristina, saying. The counter was chest-high, which is too high in a counter. As I set my beer down, I almost missed it. Recovering, I poked the blue wire-frame glasses up my nose, a not entirely attractive gesture, smiled, paused, considered a story I'd just heard, and then, as if the outcome of my miscue, the slight embarrassment it caused, the story, and no doubt my own bullying past, found myself thinking, "Today I set out to make a million dollars."

This was an unusual thought for me to have. After all it wasn't like I suddenly knew how to make a million dollars. I hadn't gone fumbling for a pad in the middle of the night struck by a "vision" of a new way to do things, which later people would impress upon me as important. Nor did I have a unique "skill set," "a core competency," a dynamic new "business model," all things which I'd eventually hear were helpful in business. Frankly, I didn't know what a business model was. Soon enough, I'd meet a shaggy-headed fellow who shut himself in a closet—he insisted it really was a closet—and emerged six months later with a brainy software package. That wasn't something I was likely to pull off. I spent too much time on the phone with tech support. I could go on. The list of business advantages I didn't have was stunning.

Plus, it's probably worth mentioning, I didn't really think of myself as someone motivated to earn a million dollars. Growing up, I'd had my share of after-school work, the kind that I'd later hear indicated an entrepreneurial disposition. I'd delivered newspapers, cut lawns. I'd assembled gaudy costume jewelry in a neighbor's basement. Frankly, I'd tried lots of jobs. That wasn't unusual in my family which went in for a fair amount of vocational experimentation. At a time when my father held an executive position in New York City, he stacked jewelry catalogues in the foyer of our suburban home. He sold inexpensive peace-and-love medallions through the mail, not unlike those I put together in that neighbor's basement. Later, my parents would look into a Laundromat business, then a tutoring center. Briefly, they'd spend time in pay phones, collecting bagfuls of quarters in their Ford Escort. They seemed to audition futures, and long after my lawn-cutting days, I occasionally indulged the family pastime as well. Once Cristina and I even tried to launch a little business in, as I came to think of it, the pest accessories industry.

Cristina works for a non-profit. (When asked, she says, "I'm an activist.") One day she mentioned that she hated the look of those black Combat discs—almost as much as she disliked the cockroaches they were meant to kill. She figured you could create an illustrated cardboard facade to hide the ugly gadgets. We mentioned the project to a neighbor who offered to help. He was an artist and plumber with—him too—an activist streak. Once his toilet was blocked; to fix it, he'd broken into an uncooperative neighbor's apartment and secretly installed a length of pipe, a bit of initiative I'd long admired.

For a few hundred dollars, we commissioned a prototype. A design student came up with a lovely origami model of a cockroach hotel. It folded ingeniously and looked like a New York City townhouse. Sadly, the project soon came to nothing. Despite early enthusiasm—and some wrangling over future profits—there were too many hurdles: design, distribution, production. Strangers had to do things they didn't seem inclined to do. Convincing them was tedious. Once the fun went, so did my commitment.

Moneymaking, I concluded, hadn't really gotten its hooks into me. (I'm not sure it had really latched onto my parents either. My father literally whistled every time he shipped off a peace-and-love medallion.) As a primary focus, I was happy to tell myself, a focus on money seemed dull, pushy, limited, obvious. I was after bigger fish, I assured myself.

And, anyway, journalism, which I'd done for 20 years, was a fine, useful profession. A person could do it forever. The work was varied, interesting, worthwhile, and I didn't have to get up too early. I wrote long stories about colorful characters. Oddball extremes was how I sometimes thought of them. Johnny, a favorite, had tried to blow up his hometown. "You had to really like Johnny to like Johnny," his best friend told me. I liked Johnny. I suppose my preference was to write about outsiders like Johnny, or the hoboes I got arrested with, or the scared volcanologist, or the Harlem kid with a genius for chess, or the hustlers on the outskirts of Hollywood, people with unusual, even uncontrollable urges. I even—and I can't account for this—took to a serial killer I'd first met when he picked me up hitchhiking.

And yet lately, I had to admit that journalism wasn't entirely riveting. Recently, in fact, I'd found myself perseverating on a disturbing encounter from my first newspaper job. Two decades ago I'd worked for The Miami Herald. One day a fellow reporter told me of meeting a farmer near Lake Okeechobee. The farmer asked my friend what he did for a living. Actually, his formulation was more pointed.

"You go around and ask people things and then put them in the paper?" the farmer asked.

"Yes," my friend told him, a little surprised himself.

"And they pay you for that?" he pursued.

When I thought of what I did for a living, the patient notetaking, the patient listening, it all seemed absorbing, of course, even fascinating. Still, these days I had to admit that my job lacked a certain intensity, an essential drama, a connection to a larger story. Let's face it, I was pretty much indifferent to work in the categories that made sense these days. Lately, I'd started to feel as marginal as my colorful characters, and marginality no longer seemed very original. I'd probably felt this way, off and on, for a few years, and in that it was comforting. Let's say the tenor of my discomfort was comfortable. Lately, though, I'd started to wonder what I'd do if I left journalism.

Then that evening I found myself at that cocktail party for a movement Democrat, a liberal from New York's Upper West Side who sometimes championed the kinds of people I wrote about. He was a short man. Perhaps that encouraged me; a physical squaring-off seemed possible. I poked a finger at him. Wise up, I said, the world has changed. It was leaving his good-natured outlook behind. I raised my voice, rattled on. He grew a smile, the kind you give someone else's misbehaving child. "You're husband's something else," he told Cristina when finally I let him go.

I turned from him toward that too-high gray counter and started to listen to a handful of nearby people, some of whom I didn't know, not entirely concentrating, the way one does at New York parties. I heard some laughter across the room, a few isolated words, and then a guy next to me in a brown suede coat began to tell a story. He was tall, mid-30s, with a full head of dark hair, black rectangular glasses, and an inviting style of speech. He called people he'd just met "brother" in a half-familiar, half-ironic way. I thought someone said he was a novelist. Apparently, he'd recently been an entrepreneur. He was describing how you'd go about meeting with venture capitalists in order to raise money.

"You want one of the people on your team to be button-down, your banker, your grown-up," he said. He may have rapped his knuckles on a chair.

"Grown-up?" I asked. In context, the term was intriguing.

"He's got to instill confidence," he said. His head seemed to adjust to an ever more precise angle.

"Oh," I said. "And who else?"

"A flashy guy. In an Armani suit maybe. This guy has to promote the vision," he said. "Then you want someone, maybe a celebrity, somebody who could casually say, 'I was just playing golf with Quincy and he loves this idea.'"

My eyes lit up. It was as if this guy let slip that he was a Navy SEAL. The drama of a meeting like that! Anything could happen. Magazines lately wrote about lone entrepreneurs upending entire industries. Perhaps this fellow was one of those. My imagination raced. I pictured stare-downs with investors. Shouting matches. Had he, I found myself wondering, ever been double-crossed? I'd lately thumbed through the business pages. Who hadn't? They read like the sports pages. You could almost hear the cheering. People in business seemed to be having the times of their lives.

"Which guy were you?" I asked him.

"Brother," he said to me, "I used to own a black Armani suit."

Looking back, I believe that it was at just about that moment that I'd experienced, jumbled with self-consciousness and the aftereffect of that story, a vague—what was it? What I seemed to experience was an urge, though now that I say the word aloud—urge—it sounds wrong. It wasn't all that forceful. It was probably just a mood. (Certainly, it was just a mood.) As close as I could tell, this one had to do with wanting something, meaning something other than what I had. "I want more than anything—" I thought, but there I hesitated.

Everybody wants something else, I assured myself reasonably. You can't get away from it. I want, I want. I want. It was a roar. But what did I want? My aptitude for wanting hadn't ever been very high, not for focused wanting, the kind you heard so much about these days. With me, desire headed into the cosmos, disappearing like radio waves in search of distant life. It was a little embarrassing. After all, my determined family boasted serious goals. In past generations there'd been choppy crossings in the dead of night. I had a great uncle who swam a river—I forget which—to escape. (Talk about focused wanting!) My energetic father had eventually walked away from an established career. He'd switched futures. Together he and my mother started a small school. Then at that party in the gray room, I suddenly knew what I wanted, wanted with an intensity I am tempted to describe as ancestral. I wanted my fill. I wanted to give as good as I got. To get into arguments. Some tussling. A showdown or two would be fine. Maybe I could be double-crossed. Yes. I wouldn't mind having a hand in the future. Not at all. I wanted something that landed me. Landed me. I wanted to be in the thick of things. And I wanted stories to tell.

And that, I believe, was the precise moment when, reaching my beer toward the chest-high counter, the one I'd almost missed, I smiled, paused, pushed those goofy blue wireframes up my nose, paused again, and then thought triumphantly: "Today I set out to make a million dollars." Though, on reflection, I may have uttered these words aloud, seeing as how nearby partygoers tightened the grip on their drinks. Two women, I noticed, turned to one another and shared a wide-eyed look.

I hardly cared. Look what I'd been missing, I thought suddenly. I gazed at my brown bottle of beer, which made a sweaty O on the gray counter. The million-dollar project suddenly struck me as a lot more invigorating than the doughy desk work at the center of my current life. The roughhouse of commerce. That's where it was at these days. I thought about the manly adventure of business, and the entrepreneurs I might tangle with. I imagined that I'd soon go on about the real engine of the economy and the shape of things to come. Before long, I just knew, I'd cut people off with a look. "What's the bottom line?" I'd say, "It's now or never." I'd start sentences with "I believe" and float a finger in the air to let people know I meant it. They wouldn't walk away, grin fixed in place.

I took up my drink and wiped the ring of condensation from the counter with my sleeve. Perhaps, on reflection, I wanted to impress the guy next to me, the one in the brown suede jacket, who I now thought of as the Armani guy. I made a motion with my elbows like a washing machine. "I want to throw some elbows," I said sincerely. I did this beer in hand, spilling a drop, as I tried to explain to this person I barely knew how things would go if—where did I get this inspiration from?—he were willing to pitch in. I believed it would be more fun. Yes fun was the word that came to mind.

"Come on," I said to this guy, the one I now seemed to be addressing. I may have been shouting. Who could blame me? I was suddenly intent, a fine development in and of itself. I saw my future. A bunch of them. "Let's make a million dollars! Why not?" I snapped. "We'll give it a year," I said. "If it takes ten months, then we'll take two off." I already liked the million-dollar goal. It seemed robust, vital, martial, the way I used to feel playing touch football, breathing quick, steamy bursts into fall air. And it seemed full of possibilities as if—looking back, I can still hardly believe this—it was something original. I felt springy, full of purpose. Taken together, it was one sharp feeling. I took a sip of beer and grabbed for a chair, at which point the knot of partygoers dispersed, perhaps relieved.

* * *

Of course, simply declaring my million-dollar intention—however mismatched it and I at first appeared—put me in a very popular group. I knew this because at about this time I met a fidgety Ivy League graduate, a good-looking, slightly reedy woman with intense red hair and a sharp, insistent manner. Mary was one of those people, I soon understood, who always seemed to have a hand in the air indicating something smart and entertaining to say. "I'm an insecure overachiever," she said. Apparently she knew lots of them.

We were at a café drinking lemonade as Mary explained she had a future to plan. She seemed optimistic, more or less. (Optimism, I sensed, wasn't Mary's strong suit.) Until recently, she'd been involved in an entrepreneurial venture with two other employees, both friends, both unpaid, and all working out of her apartment. I gathered that the business had something to do with bonds and the internet. Mary didn't feel I'd get it and so spared me a detailed explanation. In any case, the venture collapsed when an investment-banking firm decided to go into bonds in just the way Mary had contemplated.

As a second lemonade arrived, Mary's narrow shoulders pulled taut as a birdcage. I sensed some discontent, though I wasn't immediately sure why. She mentioned she hadn't gotten the pop she wanted, a term which apparently meant money. Still, Mary was entertaining job offers. She was the kind of applicant people sought. And tomorrow she was off for vacation. She signed. Her vertebrae seemed to click into place. Did she have to spell it out?

Perhaps that would be best.

So she did. "Why aren't I a millionaire?" she asked forlornly. She added, "I'm 30. Well, almost."

You didn't have to be approaching 30 to experience the special tug, and the accompanying ache, in that question. You didn't even have to be a businessperson, not one of longstanding in any case.

To set out to make a million dollars connected a person to what seemed for a time the country's most popular ambition. According to what I read, most people expected to be millionaires. In 1997, a survey of American college students found that a stunning 77 percent believed they would someday earn a million dollars.

Were they wrong?

At one point, The New York Times reported this perversely precise statistic: on any given day, said the paper of record, 64 new millionaires were minted in California's Silicon Valley alone, which is a rate of 23,360 a year - about the population of the town in New Jersey where I grew up. By about 1999, someone had counted 84,000 millionaires in the Silicon Valley region. (Another 134,000 were half-millionaires, at least on paper. ) These new wealthy weren't just computer programmers, those who suddenly seemed to know everything worth knowing. They were managers and manual writers; they were in PR, in sales. Wealth suddenly seemed a routine assignment and—reversing a decades-long trend—was being completed at a young age.

In New York, too, people I kind of knew appeared to be doing very well. I heard about the person whose son was on a friend's son's soccer team and whose company was going public. (And, still, he worried about his son's playing time.) The new wealthy always seemed to be regular folk, people who seemed to have no particular aptitude. As one friend with an unusually compromised attention span exclaimed, "This guy answered an ad in a free newspaper"—I think the free part really got to him. "And now," he added, his attention riveted, "he's worth $35 million." The process might be baffling—free newspaper? $35 million?—but the import was clear. These days riches seemed as available as the air, if you just knew where to look.

* * *

In a few minutes, the Armani guy wandered over to where I sat.

"You're tic-y," I said from my chair. It was mainly in his foot and occasionally in his head which could shift with camera shutter speed.

"I'm a ticker," he concurred.

"Do you ever feel—" I pursued, looking for the right word. "—pent- up?" Lately, I did. I had it in my legs, shot-through like a drug.

"All the time," he said quickly. Then, without a segue, he offered to help. "I have some experience with business plans," he mentioned casually, "I could look at one for you." I thought that was terrific, though I'd never seen a business plan. No matter. I told myself things were falling into place. I had a team forming. (Team. I already liked saying the word.) From the start I thought of the Armani guy as my business consigliere. His name was Steve Reynolds. Consigliere was what I liked to call him. Later, when I got to know him better, I'd sometimes call him Consig.

In time, I'd learn a few salient details about him—not that it was ever easy. It was like pulling teeth, as my mother would say. Consigliere, it would turn out, had ample business credentials. Before becoming an entrepreneur, he'd been a leading Internet consultant, often quoted in Fortune and Business Week. He occasionally referred to this as my business act, which led me to think there were others. And, indeed, not long ago, he'd written an inventively titled novel, The Impact of the Energy Crisis on Haircuts and Other matters of Inner Peace. Consigliere was a business guy who longed for a three-book deal. No wonder he seemed to keep a lot of energy under wraps.

At the party, Consigliere abruptly put his elbows at his sides. He twisted his arms in his brown suede jacket, a gesture that at first confused me. Then I got it. My first company would be called Throwing Elbows, a Limited Liability Corporation.

Steve Fishman is a magazine journalist with bylines everywhere from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, including Details, GQ, New York, and Vogue. He previously wrote A Bomb in the Brain, one of Library Journal's Best Books of the Year. This is excerpted from Karaoke Nation: Or, How I Spent a Year in Seach of Glamour, Fulfillment, and a Million Dollars, by Steve Fishman. Copyright © 2003 by Steve Fishman and published by the Free Press. Excerpt used with permission Steve Fishman. You can read a mediabistro.com interview with Steve Fishman here, and you can buy Karaoke Nation at Amazon.com.



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