Fly the deal-making skies

For would-be Net moguls, a flight to San Francisco can be a gift from the networking gods -- or a devilish tease.

Published July 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

We are flying from New York to San Francisco on the cheap airline. Four of us are standing, waiting at the gate, for upgrades to business class. It would be irritating if we had not discovered that we have a common bond. It is, of course, the Internet. We discover this when one of the other three recognizes me as a technology writer. She works at a high-tech public relations firm. The moment we start talking, the guy next to us interrupts to say he is launching his own Net venture. He owns a chain of dating service outlets and is expanding to the Net.

The dating guy is actually closing in on a major deal. He is talking to an insurance company about buying the carcass of a failed online dating site, It is not exactly clear why he thinks he will succeed. He is convinced that streaming video introductions over the Net is the answer. He plans to charge an awful lot for his service. The press agent and I exchange skeptical looks.

Then the banker gets into the conversation. The banker runs a small investment advisory firm. He, too, has a big Net play up his sleeve. He is going West to investigate partnerships for an online mortgage brokerage that he has invested in. He thinks it is not getting enough publicity. I ask him for the name. He gives me the stock ticker symbol, APLY (it's trading a little below $3 a share).

"We should talk," the banker insists to the dating guy. He does not wait for an answer. He jumps the line to ask the ticket agent.

"Can we sit together?" "That is," he adds to me, whose place he has taken, "if you don't mind."

I don't mind at all. I am not sure what kind of deal they will cut. I have the suspicion that the banker will try to sell the dating guy on taking his company public. Does it matter that the online dating service doesn't exist yet? Not really. First sell it, then build it.

The dating guy looks to be more interested in pitching his company to the press agent, but he faces the task of talking to the banker with equanimity. If all goes well, he might get off the plane with a new banker and a new PR firm. Not bad for a late-night flight on the cheap airline.

We get to our seats and the banker locks himself in rapt conversation with the dating guy. But then something funny happens. I look at them just a minute after takeoff, and the banker is already asleep. The dating guy has a lost look on his face. He is trapped in the window seat, hemmed in by his sleeping companion. He looks in my direction. Do we have any pressing business to conduct?

I nod politely and turn away. He's on his own. The competition is hard at work, and meanwhile he's here trapped in an airline seat, no deal, no networking, no chance of any movement before the banker wakes up. Five more hours of flight ahead, all wasted. Five hours -- a precious commodity indeed in the Internet gold rush.

By Mark Gimein

Mark Gimein is a staff writer for Salon Technology.

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