"We're going to put the fun back into funerals."
With that declaration, the meeting began. It was a curious elevator pitch.
"The fun back into funerals?" I asked.
"Absolutely. We're going to make it easy to make choices when someone dies. You know, the casket, the liner, flowers, that kind of thing."
"Sure. All those decisions. It's not easy. So why not use the Internet?"
"But fun? Why fun?"
"Come on. Catchy marketing. You know, a play on words."
"Ah, the fun in fun-erals."
"Right. That's it. How many hits do you think you get now if you put the words fun and funeral into Yahoo!? Hundreds? I doubt it. You'll get one, just one. Us."
Giving the pitch is a fellow named Lenny. Something about using the Internet to sell items most people buy at a funeral home when someone dies, items that arouse as many varied and complex feelings as sex toys.
We are seated in the Konditorei, a comfy coffee shop nestled in bucolic Portola Valley. With the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west and Palo Alto and Route 280 to the east, we are but one exit away from Sand Hill Road, the famous home to Silicon Valley venture capital. The Konditorei is where I meet people like Lenny, the pitchmen of the Internet era. Here, or in a couple of restaurants in the same rustic strip mall. This is my office. (Forget Buck's Restaurant in next-door Woodside. That's where venture capitalists prefer to meet supplicants and huddle around deals under a giant painting of Roy Rogers on Trigger rampant. If you sit in the corner of Buck's all morning, starting with the power breakfast crowd, you can quietly observe who is funding whom. It's a voyeur's embarrassment.)
Every morning a stream of humanity stops at the Konditorei for coffeejoggers fueling up, businesspeople in a rush, Stanford students on their way to class, and a handful of deal makers en route from hillside homes to Sand Hill castles. It's also, ironically, a stop for the parade of incoming workers who saw, mow, paint, rake, and hammer away busily at the homes of the Valley shakers. Porsches, Mercedes, and BMW's queue up to enter the freeway, indifferent to the oncoming line of pickup trucks that replace them each morning.
I had arrived a few minutes earlier, and Lenny was waiting for me.
"You're Randy," he began. "I'm Lenny. Frank said you'd be easy to spot."
Shaved head, cowboy boots, jeans, motorcycle jacketI seldom get mistaken at these blind dates.
With a solid grip, he shook my hand; then, his left hand on my elbow like a politician, he guided me to the table where he'd already set up shop. I could tell by his amped up confidence that he was probably not an engineer. Too outgoing. Too well dressed. So it's not a technology pitch, I said to myself.
I looked at my watch on the arm he didn't have in a power lock. Nine o'clock exactly.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting," I said. "I had this down for nine."
"Nine is right. Come on," he commanded. "I'll get you some coffee. My treat. You take cream, sugar?"
"Thanks. I don't know what I'll have. Why don't you sit down while I decide."
He started to resist, but I retrieved my arm and walked to the counter. He took one step to follow but then turned and sat down. I let out the breath I'd been holding since he grabbed my arm.
I watched him askance as I waited for my low-fat chai latte, putting his age at twenty-eight. I took stock of his thick, blue-black hair and his pale and drawn face. He looked like he'd been pulling some all-nighters, and by noon he would need another shave. Beneath two smudges of eyebrows, his dark eyes gripped his target like his double-lock handshakeno gazing off and gathering his thoughts. He sat with his body coiled, tense, ready to spring. At me.
Lenny's standard-issue corporate uniformnavy blue suit, crisp white shirt, tie a rich mosaic of reds and yellowspegged him as not from the Valley: sales guy, I'd guess. The only one in the Konditorei wearing a suit and tie. Personally I hadn't worn a suit in years. When I was at GO Corporation a few years ago, spending several months negotiating an investment in the company by IBM, my opposite number was one of their seasoned negotiators, Dick Seymour. He was a classic IBM fixer. The equivalent of Foreign Service diplomats, these fixers knew how to manage both the internal IBM organizationall the different inside stakeholders whose interests could often be at oddsand the outside oddballs like us at GO. Seymour was probably in his fifties, fit, highly articulate, utterly professional, and impeccably dressed in a blue suit and crisp white shirt. There I was, in my thirties, in my jeans and T-shirt and florid socks and skateboard shoes, going nose to nose on complicated deal points. Dick treated me like a professional through all our wrangling, not as if I were a creature from a valley of lunatics. GO accepted some tough terms to get IBM's support, but I came away with nothing but admiration for Dick. He had class. He was the consummate deal guy. For all his professional savvy and maturity, though, I couldn't ever imagine a guy like Dick founding a startup.
Now I'm wondering whether Lenny is the corporate type, just younger than Dick and not yet so polished and accomplished.
Connie leaned over the register as she handed me my chai.
"Your friend want another cup of coffee?" she asked.
"I don't know. Sure. You know what he takes?"
"You bet. French roast, black." She whispered, "He's had five cups in the last hour. I'm surprised he can sit still at all. I hope you're wearing your surge protector today." With her sleeves rolled up to handle the morning onslaught, Connie still had time to offer some neighborly advice.
When I rejoined him at his table, Lenny glanced at the coffee I put in front of him and laid a black three-ring notebook in front of me. "Thanks" was obviously not in the script.
"I usually make the presentation on a computer, you know, throw it up on a screen, if I can. That's how Frank saw it. But I checked it out earlier. Too much glare in here. So we'll use the dead tree version."
Here it comes. The pitch. People present ideas for new businesses to me two or three times a week. If I chose to, I could hear a pitch every dayall day, every day. Just as everyone in L.A. has a screenplay, everyone in Silicon Valley has a business planmost of them nowadays for Internet businesses. I've been around Silicon Valley and involved with young companies since the early '80sstartups, spinouts, spin-ins, what have you. I'm not in the phone book or listed in any professional directory. If you don't know someone I know, you can't find me.
I wonder what Frank had in mind when he set me up with Lenny. I prefer to riff on ideas, brainstorm, prod and provoke, have some constructive give-and-take around a business concept. It didn't feel like there was going to be much of that with Lenny. I gazed out the picture window at the bright California day, the eucalyptus trees rustling in the breeze.
"Before you get started, Lenny, tell me how you know Frank," I said.
"He's, uh, a friend of a friend. We presented to him Monday, and he sounded interested. He wanted us to meet with you right away."
Sounds like the early bird special, a quick chat before Frank and his partners hold their weekly gathering to talk shop and audition new deals. Obviously Lenny didn't know Frank at all. Thanks, Frank. You owe me.
Frank is a headliner in the VC world, whom I've known since I raised money for GO. His firm is "top tier," a term reserved for firms with such a long wake of winners that the mere mention of their names imparts instant credibility and a whiff of inevitability to a startup. We stay in touch. A few days ago he'd called to say he was sending me a prospect. "Intense guy," he confided, "unusual idea but may be interesting. If you like it perhaps we can work together on this one."
"What do you do, Lenny?"
"I sell group life insurance to companies, part of the employee benefit package. National accounts. So I'm out to the West Coast every two or three weeks. I'm the company leader in new sales the last two years. Millions of dollars in value."
Lenny paused a split second and slid some kind of legal document across the table.
"I brought along an NDA. Gould you please sign it before I go on." For a second his supreme confidence faltered.
Without a glance, I pushed it back at Lenny.
"I see dozens of companies each month, Lenny. I can't sign a confidentiality agreement. It exposes me to inadvertent liability. My integrity is my stock in trade. If Frank referred you, he can vouch for me. If you're uncomfortable with that, don't tell me anything you think is a trade secret. Frank didn't sign your NDA, did he?"
"Ah, no. I just thought ..." Lenny said, skidding for a split second. "OK. Let me start."
He flipped open the binder. It was a professional presentation, the kind you see in boardrooms all the time. From his pocket he extracted an extendable pointer. He pulled it out a few inches and tapped at the title page.
"We want to call this business Funerals.com, but some undertaker in Oklahoma already has the URL," he said. "When we get funding we'll buy the rights to the name."
Funerals.com. Oh, brother. What next?
"I understand," I said. Below the title were the date and the words "Presentation to Randy Komisar." He would probably read aloud all the words to me.
"Presentation to Randy Komisar."
"You don't need to read it to me, Lenny," I said. "Just tell me about it."
"Sure, if that's what you'd prefer." He flipped to a page that proclaimed, in a blaze of black type: "The Amazon.com of the Funeral Goods Business."
Now that's a new one.
"This window of opportunity is going to close soon, but if we act now, we can make this the Amazon of the funeral business," Lenny began. "It's going to be big. The world is moving to the InternetI'll explain that in a minuteand these products will move there too. The Internet's changing the way we live, and it will change the way people die. Someone's going to ride this opportunity all the way to the bank" or the pearly gates, I said to myself"and we think we should be the ones."
Next page: "Projected Revenues."
"In the first full year after we're up and running, we expect $10 million in revenue. Fifty million the second year. The third year we really hit our stride100 million." Lenny paused for effect. "Exciting, right? It's big." He waited for my response, then leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, "Most people don't like to talk about this. Death, dying. Loved ones passing on. But that's part of the opportunity. You understand that, right? It's a competitive barrier, a hurdle to entry. Most people won't want to do this. Would you?" He looked at me but didn't wait for an honest response. "I wouldn't, if I weren't so damn excited about it."
Until this last line, Lenny's pitch sounded like dozens of others I've heard. Everyone's going to be the Amazon, or the Yahoo!, or the eBay of the you-fill-in-the-blank business. Manifest destiny. Millionsbillions evenof dollars overnight. Then sell out, or do an IPO and cash out.
"You know what makes this business so exciting?" he asked.
I waited. The warm spring air wafted through the open doors of the Konditorei.
"People are dying, that's what. It's inevitable. Death and taxes, right? Doesn't matter, rich or poor, what you believe, where you live, how you live, what you think. In the end, everybody has to die sometime, and we're going to be there, ready to provide the goods that people have to buy. They must buy! That's the point. You understand? This isn't about eyeballs visiting your site. These aren't eyeballs. These are people who need what Funerals.com has, because everybody dies. And when somebody dies, there has to be one final shopping day to assuage a life of guilt. To buy all these things, expensive things, high-margin things"he thumped the table and stressed "things" every time he said it"all these things, expensive things. And there's no getting around it. These are necessities aimed at the biggest aggregate market in the worldbiggest because it includes everyone. Everyone." He paused again for effect. "That's the business, and it's a dream business, because you don't have to convince anybody they need what you have. They know it, brother, they know it. We sell the solution everyone ultimately wants. No demand creation, just redirect it, to us."
I looked around the coffee shop sheepishly. Lenny should have asked everyone in the Konditorei to sign nondisclosure agreements. Sure, he might never see these people again, but these are my homies. Connie rolled her eyes. Having overheard so many pitches herself, she knew the drill cold.
Next page: A shaded graph probably sold ready-made in any office superstore in the country. The shameless "Projected Growth" chart inevitably traces the outline of a hockey stick and assumes that a short period of investment will be obliterated by years of exponential increases in whateverrevenues, net income, profits, customers, corpses. Lenny's chart was all about revenues, certainly not profits, because this was, after all, an Internet business.
"Hundred million, three years, easy." Lenny poked his pointer at the highest end of the graph. "Who knows how far it can go. The potential is unlimited, and in three years the exit strategy kicks in. May be an IPO. Depends on the stock market. Probably a buyout."
"Getting to $100 million annual sales in three short years is no small task," I cautioned.
I went on to explain that in the late '80s I'd been one of the founders of a software company, Claris Corporation, that grew to nearly a $90 million annual run rate in three years, and we were profitable to boot. That was when $90 million was $90 million, not like today when $90 million in stock options alone is chump change. I remember all too well how much hard work and good fortune must come together to make that happen.
"Selling software? No offense, but what was that? Hundred dollars a pop? Two hundred? This is thousands of dollars a sale. Thousands. I'm talking about an order of magnitude difference. No comparison. Besides, the numbers here only include the U.S. You understand that? The U.S. alone. But, people die everywhere, right, not just here? This is truly global. The world market for these goods is at the very least triple, quadruple the U.S. markettens of billions of dollars, easy."
I pictured some Tibetan ordering the hack-into-small-pieces-and-feed-to-the-vultures economy option. How would Lenny price that?