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While CIA Agent Carl Cummings was being taught to heel, Frank was sitting at his kitchen table, tapping away at the cramped keyboard of a cheap netbook connected to a neighbor’s unsecured WiFi network. Even this was risky, he reminded himself, so this brief session would have to be his last until he moved on.
A few taps more and he had logged on to the bank account of the Pangloss Game Company. Mentally crossing his fingers, he clicked on the link for an account that simply read “iBallZapper.” When the new view displayed, the number that immediately caught his eye was in the balance column, and that number was $247,396.78. A slow smile of victory spread across Frank’s face as he hit the refresh button. The number jumped upward by another $1,238.42. It seemed that his plan was unfolding nicely.
That result had seemed far from likely just ten days before. Then, he had sat in the same place wondering how he could possibly afford to execute the strategy that was taking shape in his mind. No matter how he looked at it, he needed something he didn’t have, which was money. And a fair amount of it, too.
That was a problem. Frank was fiercely, if perversely, proud of his relative penury. His father had skipped out on the family while he was still in secondary school, and if Frank hadn’t scored a great scholarship, he never would have made it to MIT. Even so, he’d had to work at one part time job or another from the time he was 14 until he graduated from college, and he was determined that Marla wouldn’t have to do the same. Since his salary at the Library of Congress wasn’t all that great, that meant living modestly in a pretty crummy part of town. Still, he could look forward to a decent pension when he retired as a civil servant – and more importantly, Marla would graduate from college and grad school unburdened by debt.
But what now? He hadn’t ever planned on suddenly needing a lot of cash. Hell, he didn’t even own a car, much less a house he could borrow against. And what he was planning now could easily require more money than he could run up on any reasonable number of credit cards, much less repay after the dust had settled.
Frank’s fingers drummed so hard on his table he finally became aware that they hurt. But what was he to do? Where does an IT guy go when he needs money to fund a plan? He didn’t have any well-off friends or family to borrow from, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to be able to get money from some venture capitalist.
Or could he? Frank stood up abruptly and grabbed his coat, making sure that one of his cheap pre-paid phones was in the pocket. With Lilly yapping angrily at his ankles, he threw his coat on and left the apartment in a rush, slamming the door in the outraged animal’s face.
Minutes later, he was walking rapidly along the street in wet, falling snow, his hands shoved deep into his pockets and his mind spinning at top speed. The pieces of the plan cascaded into place almost effortlessly, and after a half hour of walking, he opened the phone to call an old school mate, Archie Pangloss. He’d kept loosely in touch with Archie over the years, and helped him out with security issues from time to time. Now it was payback time, and he knew the irrepressible Archie would love his idea instantly.
Luckily for Frank, Archie was available and took the call.
“Hey, Frank! What’s with the unlisted number? You’re lucky I answered this call at all.”
“Sorry about that. I’ve realized my phone was dead and picked up a cheapo at a convenience store to hold me over till tomorrow. But listen – here’s why I called. I’ve got a great idea for a new mobile phone game app, and I’m hoping you’ll publish it for me.”
Frank described the game in detail. As expected, Archie ate it up.
“Frank, that’s fantastic! Any time you want to hang it up at the Library, there’s a game designer job waiting for you over here at PGC. If this goes viral we’ll own the mobile game space until the fun’s over – and we’re very good at getting the word out. For this one, we’ll go all out. How soon can you get the code to me?”
Frank paused. He wasn’t a game developer by trade, but he thought he could pull this off. He thought he could mostly just bolt together a bunch of open source software that was already out there on the Web.
“Well, as a matter of fact, I am in kind of a hurry to see this launched. If you can do the graphics by a week from today, I’ll get the backend to you at the same time. Do you think you could do the integration over the weekend after that, so we can launch the following Monday?”
“No sweat. The graphics are the easy part. We can reuse point and shoot stuff we developed years ago. And with a week to work with, we can have some fun tailoring the look and feel and adding some cool sound effects.”
“Great. Now here’s the thing, Archie. I’m, uh, having a little trouble with my Ex, and this would just be a really bad time for me to see any money coming into my bank account. How about we split the profits 50 – 50, and you deposit my half in a subaccount at your bank. That way, you can just send me an ATM card and wire instructions, and if I need any cash over the next few months I can just tap into the subaccount that way.
“And hey – don’t give me any credits on the app, or name me in the copyright notice, either. Her lawyer’s a sneaky bastard, and for all I know, he’s got a private investigator keeping an eye on me. What do you say?”
“As far as I’m concerned, what happens in FrankLand stays in FrankLand. If you want me to have all the fame and glory of designing a killer game, I can deal with that. And as long as we get the financial stuff straightened out before tax time, I’m cool.”
“Excellent! Archie, tell me honestly, though. Do you really think this game will be successful?”
“No question about it, Frank. How could it be otherwise in this best of all possible game worlds?”
Archie’s perpetually upbeat attitude usually grated on Frank, but this time he was grateful for the encouragement. He had a hell of a lot of work to do, and only a week to do it in. And he had no Plan B.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – $$$$ – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
The Monday that the Pangloss Game Company launched iBallZapper! made it into immediately into the record books of massive, multi-player on line gaming. True to his word, Archie’s forces instantly blanketed the social media landscape with rave reviews, and the Tweets flew thick and fast. After that, the game sold itself, since it was as easy to play as it was competitive. Moreover, the biggest daily and weekly winners could make real prize money, to boot.
The concept of iBallZapper! was as simple as you could get: all you had to do was to download the App, sign in, and then go hunt and kill yourself some iBalls – and iBalls were everywhere. Once you found one, all you had to do was click on it, and it was gone. It was fun, too. You could choose from a long list of sound effects that would trigger each time another iBall bit the dust. Soon, startled passengers on subways and buses everywhere were surrounded by a cacophony of strange sounds, from the Wilhelm scream to Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. Those introduced to the game by sadistic friends got RickRolled. But whatever the soundtrack, every time another iBall winked out of existence, the player racked up more points.
And there was no end of potential players, because the app ran on all the major mobile phones, and anyone could download it for only $.99. Frank and Archie could afford to sell it cheap, because it made its real money from another piece of software: the iBall Replacement Engine, a widget they provided for free to anyone who wanted to download and install in a few seconds at their Web site.
And who wouldn’t want to do that? For every two iBalls that disappeared from a site, the engine would automatically place a new iBall at the same site – in turn triggering a new payment by iBall.com to the Website owner. So while the game still became more competitive as the number of remaining eyeballs decreased, site owners cashed in big-time on iBall payments and increased ad revenues from the hoards of iBall Zappers prowling the Web.
Of course, while the iBall Replacement Engine was free, The Pangloss Game Company took a small piece of the action every time it replaced an iBall. Site owners couldn’t care less, because the engine did all the work while iBall.com’s money flowed in.
And flow it did, as word spread far and wide, at home and abroad.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – $$$$ – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 – iBall.com founders Chad Derwent and Vinod Shah fidgeted nervously in the posh reception area of TrashTalk LLP’s offices in the heart of Silicon Valley. They were waiting for Josh Peabody, the venture capital rock star that had brought TrashTalk – and $50 million of its money – into iBalls.com. Hopefully, he’d be able to help them figure a way out of this mess. Money was literally fire hosing out of the company’s bank account, and at a faster rate by the minute. It seemed like the whole world had gone iBallZapper! app mad.
“We’ve got to just shut it down,” Vinod said. “We won’t be able to survive the week at this rate. I don’t care what he says, we’ve got to throw the switch now.”
“But we can’t just shut it down. Remember that stupid click wrap license the lawyers made us use? Have you ever read it?”
“Of course not! It’s a clickwrap license. It’s just something you have to get past before you can download.”
“Yeah, well I read it this morning. It says that we can terminate the service anytime we want to – on ten days notice.”
“Well screw it! We’ll just have a malfunction then. Hell, the way things are going, they ought to expect our servers to crash!”
Both of them swung their heads in unison as they heard the unmistakable sound of The Wilhelm behind them. The receptionist was clearly absorbed in what she was doing.
“I could cry. It’s all coming crashing down around us. We should never have let that idiot Peabody persuade us to give up our original business plan.”
Just then, the great VC himself swung in through the glass doors of TrashTalk’s offices, travel bag over his shoulder.
“Hey guys! Great to see you. C’mon down this way and we’ll find out what’s on your mind. Cappuccino? No? Well, give me a few minutes while I get myself set up for the day.” Vinod groaned.
Josh ushered Chad and Vinod in a conference room and went off to the kitchen. Vinod was becoming more frantic by the minute. “What’s on our mind? He’s crazy. He’s completely out of touch with reality.”
Chad was just as thrown by Peabody’s demeanor, but tried to quiet his partner down. “Take it easy. He’s probably just as concerned as we are. I’m sure he’s just keeping a good face on in front of others. Once we’re all alone we can come up with a strategy to buy some time and figure a way out of this.”
They sat in silence until Josh finally waltzed in.
“So what do you think, guys? Would you have ever dreamed you could get publicity like this? I had my assistant put this little video montage together just for you.” This time, Chad gave a silent groan.
Peabody turned on the projector, and leaned back to enjoy the show. Chad and Vinod watched in growing horror as video clip followed clip from CNBC, NBC, and Bloomberg, each wondering what the deal was with iBall.com. Were they being attacked? Was it all a gimmick? Nobody could figure out what was really going on. The video ended with Glenn Beck raging against this rampant assault on capitalism, obviously launched by the Chinese or liberals – and most likely both.
Josh clapped and whooped. “Did you see that! Glenn Beck! By tonight, you’ll have people zapping iBalls that have never even used a computer before!”
Vinod couldn’t help himself. “You’re stark raving mad! We’ll have to pull the public offering! We’re going to be bankrupt by the end of the week!”
“Guys, guys, you just don’t get it, do you? The whole world is watching this unfold. In my entire career I’ve never seen a phenom like this. You couldn’t get publicity like this even if I was willing to give you another $50 million.
“Which I’m not, by the way,” he added, clicking the projector off.
Chad looked alarmed. “So what are we going to do?”
Josh shrugged his shoulders and tried to look sympathetic. “Ah, now that’s a tough one, isn’t it? I checked with our lawyers, and they couldn’t recommend a way to put a stop to the run on the bank. If you shut down the servers, there’d be a dozen lawyers lodging class action suits by sundown, representing all of the sites that already have iBall contracts. The legal guys tell me you’d lose for sure, so it really doesn’t make much difference whether you claim the servers crashed, or just let this run its course. That’s what I’d do, if I were you.
Chad looked sideways at Vinod, wondering whether he was leaning more towards hysteria or bloodshed.
Chad tried to sound business-like, but his voice sounded squeaky. “Josh, what’s with all this “you” instead of “we” all of a sudden? It’s always been “we” before. And I have to say, you’re acting pretty blasé with $50 million of TrashTalk’s money flying out the door.” He hoped he sounded more like a player than he felt.
“Ah, well, you know, it’s really OK – but I do appreciate your asking. As you guys know, we never let the grass grow under our feet here at TrashTalk. We’re always coming up with new ideas – new angles – new innovations. So of course, when the real estate bubble burst, we got to thinking. What happens now to all those smart guys that came up with credit swaps and derivatives to begin with? Nobody in their right mind is going to let them loose on the public markets again – at least, not for a few years, anyway.
“So we got to thinking – why not hire them up cheap and launch a startup to sell the same kind of instruments to venture capital fund investors? That way, investors could hedge their bets, and give us even more money to invest for them? And while we were at it, why stop there? Why not set it up so we and our investors could even make a profit on a washout?”
Chad was feeling desperate. “That’s crazy. And even if you could get people to buy into it, how will that help you with this fiasco? You’re going to look like a total idiot when we go under! Who would ever let you in the door again, even if their investments were insured?”
Josh looked hurt. “Chad! I really thought we’d gotten to know each other better than that. I’m really and truly hurt. I can’t believe you’d even think that Josh Peabody would ever let himself look like an idiot.”
“Here – this will make this whole situation a lot clearer.”
Josh flicked the projector on again. The screen lit up with what looked like a sound stage, with lighting and makeup people bustling around making last minute adjustments. Chad realized with a shock that the person in center stage getting his makeup adjusted was none other than Josh, and that he was on the set for CNBC’s prime time show called MadMoney.
Josh leaned back with evident delight. “You’ll love this! This is so frigg’n awesome even I can’t even believe it. Jim Cramer is dedicating a whole show to our concept! This is going to run tonight!”
With that, the camera swung to an onstage video monitor so they could watch the blaring lead-in trailer that introduced MadMoney every night. When it swung back, there was Jim Cramer, shirtsleeves rolled up in his trademarked fashion. His face filling the camera, he launched into his usual choppy introductory shtick.
…other people want to make friends – I’m – into – MAKING – MONEY! Unless you KEEP up with the MARKET, you’ll – get – HAMMERED. You’ve got to INNOVATE to STAY AHEAD.
That’s why I’m dedicating this show tonight to an AWESOME new market play invented by an AWESOME market PLAYER. My guest tonight is legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist JOSH PEABODY, of TRASHTALK!
Josh clapped. “Isn’t this guy just the greatest? I can’t get enough of him!”
Cramer and Josh shook hands, and then Cramer started speaking again.
“So tell us Josh, what’s this new market strategy all about?”
“I’ll do better than that, Jim. In fact, we’ll be able to watch the numbers play out in real time so you can really get the hang of it.”
“That sounds GREAT! So what are we seeing on that monitor over there right now?”
“That one is showing the action on the new secondary market we’ve set up to trade in VC fund derivative securities. With these securities, VC investors can’t lose, while other investors can make a market buying and selling the risk. What we’re watching is the trading on securities we sold a few months ago to protect our valued investors in case any of our investments doesn’t turn out as we hope.”
“Wow, Josh, that trading is really active! It looks like there’s LOT of BUYING and SELLING going on! So what’s causing all that volatility?”
Josh laughed. “Well, any of your viewers that are into online gaming will really enjoy this.” The camera swung to another monitor. On it was a number in dollars. The number was spinning rapidly like a gas pump in reverse selling $10 a gallon gasoline.
“Huh! That’s dropping like a STONE, Josh! What are we looking at there?”
“That,” Josh paused for dramatic effect, “Is the bank account of one of our portfolios companies – an outfit called iBalls.com.”
Vinod let out a shriek of animal rage and tried to leap over the table. But Josh was ready for him, and made it to the door with time to spare. Chad heard the door locking from the outside, leaving him in shock, and Vinod, head down now on the table, sobbing in helpless frustration.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – $$$$ – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
Back in Washington, D.C., Frank couldn’t help himself. He logged on one more time using his neighbor’s WiFi network, and headed straight to his iBallZapper! account: now it read $642,852.58.
Funny, isn’t it? He mused as he cleared the page of an iBall to hear Meg Ryan one more time. And all these years I thought that venture capital was just for losers.
– 0000 – 0001 – 0010 – 0011 – $$$$ – 0011 – 0010 – 0001 – 0000 –
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"trade in VC fund derivative securities"
Can you make that up? I fear someone must have implemented such a thing already.
You write "That result had seemed far from likely just ten days before."
Then I lose track of the time line of the story. The logic of the story would be that Frank organized the iBallZapper 10 days ago, and the bank account filling up is in the present.
However, I somehow miss the time markers where we jump to and from the past. Also, it is not particularly clear why Frank would call with an unregistered phone 10 days ago (before the break in?).
I find myself constantly wondering about the time line of the story in this chapter. Could you help out here?
As usual, you’re right on target. The problem is that while I’m making parts of the story up as I go along, I’ve already posted chapters that include dates that I need to go back and adjust. In this case, I decided to add in a plot twist requiring at least an extra week of time (for Frank to do his programming) that I hadn’t already built into the timeline.
Normally, or course, a writer could just go back and change the earlier chapter and everything would run smoothly by the time the book came out.
The problem in this case will be easily fixed a couple chapters ago when I change "the next Monday" to "a week later, Frank arrived at the office early on a Monday morning," or something like that. Next time I find I have to do one of these changes I’ll put an italicized note in the text to help the reader out.
Instead of deleting the iBalls at the server end, couldn’t you just block them from displaying on the client side? Something like a popup ad blocker.
Thanks very much; this is very interesting – and more complicated than I had imagined. When it gets to be time to package this all up in eBook form I’ll go back to the original iBall chapter and make some tweaks to make this chapter more plausible.
That’s very clever – I think I’ve followed you properly, and appreciate the time and effort you spent putting this together.
I’m having trouble setting up static pages here, but as soon as my Web guy gets it figured out, I’ll not only set up a character crib sheet that people can go to to remember whos is who, but I’ll drop your idea into another static page and link it to the the appropriate part of this chapter so people could see how an iBallZapper! might work.