From the Series, "Down and Out in Silicon Valley" by, Alan Wilensky.
So, you want to start a small, services based mobile messaging venture to serve the independent automotive trades-people. Fine, you will need a J2ME client for the Nextel platform (90% of towing and auto trades are Nextel accounts with 1 or 2 phones). Then you need a server and portal architecture, etc.
I started all of this with an actual system that I built in Salem NH where the focus was a Fax to Nextel gateway and a Web dispatch console. What I needed was a new architecture for automated 'flow-through' dispatch. I didn't think my personal (dwindling) resources would be enough to bootstrap the venture (I should have done so a year ago), so I went in search of capital.
Never mind being employed as a freelance analyst for product sector research. As someone who occasionally contracts for institutional investors - I was unable to get traction on the dilution path. I had moved from Boston, working on the Peninsula for six months and venture campaigning for six months (wow, a year).
I'm a little worn out, I'll tell ya. What is it gonna take to get a sane venture off the ground? I need an enthusiastic programmer / engineer that believes in the business' potential, or one who is bored and needs a project to sink teeth into in order for us to get to functional prototype. Where oh where?
Back to the incubator to track down a guy I met briefly, but who seemed suited to my strategy: the brilliant, bi-polar, Hiroshi - the man who dreams in code.
Like everything else connected to the launch of ThruDispatch, this was to be somewhat of a fiasco. But dear reader, believe me, ThruDispatch is a good, solid idea that will foster a sustainable, Web-based business that shall truly serve its users with a real, not imagined, business oriented social networking service.
Now, then: ThruDispatch needs a functioning prototype that could serve a test market of say, 200-2k users - towing, mobile locksmiths, and glass guys. We can deal with scaling if and when the subscription model is verified in actual use. I need to find a programmer who will take me on as a charity case. Not so easy for a business that is so tied to the blue collar constituency.
I'm now through with the Vencap community; one Partner summed it up for me better than all the others:
"If your plan could make millions, billions, I wouldn't give it a dime - it's not targeted at the current far part of the market." No kidding, it's a vertical. A big vertical nonetheless.
Back to the Los Altos business incubator. Full of Standford grads and all types of tech-based small business bootstraps, it was a little different in that at least half of it's projects were hardware / networking / mobile centric. The rest were your standard social networking and Facebook App clones.
What was that young woman's name? The babysitter of the incubator..as yes, Claudia! Ring ring on the downstairs buzzer. "hello, it's Alan Wilensky, the nice Jewish man that wants one of your teams to give up their futile work trying to compete with Cisco, or those that are cloning yet another Social Network, and help me make an automated dispatching portal for mobile automotive applications, for free."
"Who?", Claudia's voice rang like a clear bell back through the intercom. So Cheery and welcoming.
"I helped you eject that young man, Hiroshi, from the incubator that day. How is he?", I answered back.
"Wait, let me buzz you in". Claudia now sounded less than 100% enthusiastic.
I climbed the stairs. Back in the matrix, outside offices with picture windows filled. No one is surfing porn this time. Looks like some serious teams at the white boards. Well, old business first:
"Hey, uh, Claudia, the advisor said you'd have an answer for me regarding collecting a team and some seed budget to get proof of concept on ThruDispatch? Any word?" Get this out of the way, I figured.
Claudia pulled the file, but she knew the answer, I could tell. I am armored for these things, and a rejection from an incubator for my type of non-trivial (code wise) project would not be unexpected.
She took a deep breath. "relax", I said, "I'm used to hearing it". Claudia gave over the formal review:
"Mr. Wilensky, the advisor's have made the following comments regarding not being able to assist you;
1. Your venture, ThruDispatch is a market vertical, actually a trades market vertical, and the advisor's feel that the incubator should be fostering broad markets that cut across all demographics.
2. Furthermore, this is based on a subject matter expert's proper navigation of the sector to properly define the features, get them implemented, and get the market seeded. You are obviously the SME, and that makes you a key man, and the incubator tries not foster ventures where the knowledge of the market is wrapped so tightly within one principal.
"that's it. I'm sorry. I see many ideas cross this desk and I think that your idea is based in reality, serves a need, but that it looks very nuts and bolts in a sector that conjures images of grease and breakdowns."
So there Claudia gave her opinion and conveyed the wishes of the board of advisers.
Now to my business, "Claudia, can you recommend an individual that might do a prototype on the cuff for ThruDispatch? Something quick, proof-of-concept, for equity?"
"You need a real code-banger - someone who can take your spec and whip it out ship it out?", she was right on.
"exactly"....I already knew who she had in mind. Oh, brother. Oh my Brother Hiroshi. "Is he well enough?"
"Well, you just need him for a stretch, he is one of the very elite few that can take your notes and a verbal description and code a Java front and back, very fast. You just need him to be in his good place for a week or two" , Claudia really knew the score here.
"Has it worked for other people, other ventures?" I asked her.
Claudia answered, "well, there were some notable meltdowns, but not before he delivered entire working systems in a matter of a few months. He's extraordinary. I hope those projects that I had set him up on back then weren't the proximate cause for his, 'break-down'." She bit her lip and looked away.
"you'll be fine", she brightened, "You are one man show, those other ventures were big, stressful teams that really didn't play to his strengths and....obviously, his weaknesses", she almost looked like she was about to recant the whole idea.
"o-k", I said, with an air of uncertainty.
"I'll walk to his halfway house later, and give him your number or email", she said with a kind of resigned finality.
"Halfway house?", I gulped. I knew the chap had problems; come to think about it, when taken in the perspective of our last encounter, maybe such a living situation was better than the alternatives?
"Eh, mmmmm, group home, yes, yes, that's the more appropriate term", Claudia ventured.
So I left the business incubator with much on my mind. How could I best help and be helped by a brilliant yet troubled young computer scientist. Was this, in any way, a type of exploitation? Well, if we can make my Architecture for ThruDispatch come to life, there will be plenty of profit in what I hope will be a right-sized mobile subscriber business for the automotive trades. That can't be so bad, can it?
There were several things in my last conversation with Claudia that I just didn't pursue, such as why would she walk to deliver the request to Hiroshi, rather then email or call him. My imagination started concocting a number of lurid scenarios about phone phobias, OCD, paranoias, you name it. 'Let it go", I thought,"stick to the knitting and get the code written".
Boy was I in for a ride, as you shall see in a moment. What the heck was Claudia thinking? The kind lady probably just wanted to help me get an orphan venture off the ground, while giving a very troubled Standford Alumni a shot at salvation. It only came to light much later that poor Hiroshi was a fixture over there, and had become somewhat a ward of the Incubator due to his condition and his wealthy family's influence. But I only learned this much. much later.
Here's what happened: I heard nothing for a few weeks; I figured that was par, as in the valley many people schmooze and nothing ever gets done. Sometimes things happen at great intervals. In my consulting, I have people call me with an (imagined) straight face regarding presentations that occurred months earlier. Write it off, as usual.
Then I get an email while at my desk in San Mateo, "I am in front of your house - HW". HW?
HW? Chill up my spine? Hiroshi Watanabe? How did he find my residence? Hacking? Stalking? Claudia?
Cell phone, quickly........"hello, Claudia, Im looking out my window and Hiroshi is emailing me from in front of my house. How did he find me?"
Claudia, "Oh, I gave him your address, you don't mind? He wont use the phone, it's a paranoid thing with him." Oh, great, I thought.
"Thanks Claudia, thanks a lot!", I said, and before I hung up, she interjected, "he's not so bad, not violent, anyway."
"Are you kidding me", remember what happened when I was there last time?" I really was not up for these shenanigans.
Claudia signed off with a tone that seemed to say, 'he is your problem now, sucker', but she actually intoned, "Oh, that, he was off his meds! He'll be fine now - good luck with your project!".
Stay tuned for the next installment of the midwifery of the benighted , ThruDispatch.