How two VC nobodies got into USA Today

Back before we had such cotton candy media-spun conceits such as “celebrity chiefs,” we had celebrity venture capital firms. These sounded like glorified law firms with the exception that during the ‘90s these VCs made more money, a lot more. Everybody made money back then; or should I say, everybody spent more money back then, since money was so cheap.

Alan Greenspan had the perfect morality tale: calling this period a time of “irrational exuberance,” a lovely term coined for the history books. And the green was spanning, too, mostly across waistlines, with nothing to show for it when the dot com bubble burst in March 2000 (the year I started, Inc.) It was a hilarity of riches, a time when PR agencies turned away business unless they, too, received “shares.”

I remember a dot comer spending $40,000/month on PR. They had an S&H Green Stamps biz model. Collect enough ‘stamps’ and you could get free stuff. Gas stations of yesteryear, back when they were called “service stations,” used to have attendants pump your gas, clean your windshield and check your oil, then, if you were lucky, give you green stamps to lick into a book, all without asking. Your grandparents used these to buy free goodies from a catalog that included useful things like oven mitts, Barbie clothes, and cut-throat razors. This dot comer bombed, which goes without saying and is beside the point.

A two-man VC firm (whose portfolio included this green stamps dot comer) became a client at the Cambridge, Mass agency I was slaving for at the time. I should be fair, as they were paying me $100,000 for a director position (year: 1999). This VC firm only spent $4K per month. This defied agency client policy; they never took chump change off the street, but they being a VC firm, the agency figured they could serve as a pipeline for additional $40K clients.

VCs were highly revered in those days. Every investor threw money at them. They could do no wrong. But the celebrity VCs were getting all the ink. So we come up with a brilliant PR pitch: invite James Kim from USA Today to spend “a day in the life of a VC.”  Kim was willing to fly up to NYC for an entire day. This is incredible, unless your name is Obama. Kim would act like a fly on the wall, listening as hopefuls and existing portfolios came to the VC altar to pitch their wares. I coordinated Kim’s schedule so that Green Stamps would be part of the plan, and story. The end result was a huge photo spread in the Money section, the two VCs stood on the roof of their Battery Park building, the Twin Towers looming behind them. Great PR for both of my clients in one blow.

That was the most fun I’ve ever had on Wall Street. Two years later, 9/11 hit.


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