Brush with a pro-am ponzi

Brush with a pro-am ponzi schemer.

I wasn’t surprised when my cellphone rang because I had already told the guy who’d sent me the query to call me the next day. It was hard enough juggling a fulltime job at an insane startup while still trying to keep up my contacts with publishers and keep my writer clients happy. I wasn’t really looking for any new clients but I’m a sucker for a good pitch and I always figured I could go sit out in my car and talk on my cellphone during a break if something needed immediate attention.

Fortunately a conference room was open so I told this guy to hold a minute and went in there. I figured if I took notes on the white board people would assume I was talking to one of our crazy dotcom clients who had no idea how to run their business and were spending most of their vc money on clients like us trying to build their cockamamie schemes into convincing enough websites to generate that next round of funding. This was well past the peak of net.boom, well into the long downward slide, but reality was taking its own sweet time reasserting itself amidst all the kerfluffle and powerpoints.

Nick was an entrepreneur who wanted to write a book either about his phenomenal – so he said – business success or about himself personally. Lots of people want to write books and tell their stories and most of them think they can do it easily. In the breach, most never even get a proposal together and others end up flaking out along the way when they realize how much harder it is to write a coherent several-hundred page book than it is to entertain strangers with anecdotes at a cocktail party

Nick was an internet entrepreneur, in fact a pornsite enterpreneur. Actually, he was kind of a metaporn entrepreneur, because he didn’t actually run any porno sites himself. Instead he sold people the kits they needed to start up their own cottage porno industries. This was like ostrich breeding or opening up a franchise, all across middle america. Some of his customers were trying to exploit their own sex lives in the pro-am side of the business, but most of them were just subscribing to his seemingly limitless supply of copyright-free porn archives of dubious provenance.

I’d heard all the tent-stakes speeches before, especially during the gold rush years online. Everyone thought they’d cracked the nut and had a unique angle by selling other people the tools and services they needed to pursue their reckless plans. We knew almost nobody was going to strike gold. We just wanted to sell them pans and mules, tents and tent stakes. So I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the same reasoning obtained in the online sex business. I gather spam works the same way. Down at the base of the pyramid none of these hapless spammers are making money, but the people selling them bulk mailing tools, scraped e-mail addresses, and ever-escalation spam-protection evasion schemes were the only ones really making money. Think Amway or any other multi-level marketing ponzi scheme. Spamway, I guess.

So Nick started off by telling me about his genius scheme. The beauty part was that he made his money up front and collected subscription fees, whether his clients ever got their cookie-cutter “see my wife naked” sites up and running successfully or not. With his tools they could launch a designed site with credit-card validation and a proto-blog tool for posting the wife’s supposed daily journal to keep customers coming back for more. Nick kept insisting that his clients did make money, but I was dubious. I didn’t press the point though because I was still trying to figure out what kind of book he was planning to write.

He was a born salesmen, too. I’ve been around this type a lot. He was selling me the whole time. Everything was top of the line. His story was going to be explosive, a tearjerker, a bestseller. I just laughed that off. If people only understood the book business they’d stop thinking they were sitting on the next big title. Also, it became clear to me as it went on that h edidn’t want to twrite about his adventures in the skin trade. He wanted to write about himself.

The crux of the matter was that he had been raised Catholic and he obviously still felt there some conflict between the values instilled in him by his immigrant parents growing up and the ones he was exploiting now in his business. He kept going back and forth on this, claiming that what he was doing was good old American business and even throwing in a little bit of warmed-over free-love rhetoric from the sixties, but it didn’t take a Freud to here the denial in his elaborate circumlocutions, when it came to addressing what his clients were trying to sell.

I’m no prude. I’ve looked a porn. Whatever. It has its place. It was actually his dotcom-style hype that was wearing thin for me. I’d heard so many blue sky descriptions of business mdoels and looked at so many phonied-up numbers and charts that my bullshit-meter was on a hair-trigger by then. The problem is that the people who really can sell coals to Newcastle sound the same way, and I was only spending a few nonbillable moments of Wellspring’s time entertraining his pitch, so I was willing to let him go for a while, making noncommittal Columbo-style grunts in response to him whenever he took a breath. He was free to interpret that as agreement or encouragement if he wanted.

“I really think my story could be a breakout blockbuster hit,” he told me at one point. “We should talk about the film rights, too.” I wasn’t sure why he though there was anything unique at all about his experience, except that he was obviously having some degree of success that on some level amazed him and made him think that anything was possible and that he maybe had his fingers in an even more valuable pie. People would pay not just to purchase his kits (though he did expect the book to help cross-promote the business and vice versa) but his sit and his feet and listen to his words of wisdom about how to make it in America selling tits and ass without losing your self-respect.

I brushed him off, finally, with the hurdle that filters out 90% of my queries. I told him to write a proposal, and offered to send him some guidelines. If he could distill his pitch into a convincing business case, sure I’d consider representing him. I had my own raised-Catholic guilt issues to consider but then again I’d be one further step removed from him in my own little pyramid of obligations and responsibilities and I’d already offered to represent writers with much more crass or vile ideas. I’m all about free speech anyway, right?

So I wasn’t lying when I told him that I’d honestly consider repping his book proposal if he got it together and sent it to me. By now there were people milling around the little conference room about to start a meeting, so I needed to wipe the white board clean and cut it short anyway. He was launching into another extended hyperbolic pitch when I cut him short (I love doing that to salespeople) and told him to go ahead and take that next step.

I never heard back from him.