Gretl's stall in the dead WalMart off the I-5 in Pico Rivera was not th_usiest spot in the place, but that was how she liked it. Time to think wa_ritical to her brand of functional sculpture, and reflection was the scarces_ommodity of all in 2027.
Which is why she was hoping that the venture capitalist would just leave he_lone. He wasn't a paying customer, he wasn't a fellow artist — he wanted t_buy_ her, and he was thirty years too late.
"You know, I pitched you guys in 1999. On Sand Hill Road. One of the foundin_artners. Kleiner, I think. The guy ate a salad all through my slide-deck.
When I was done, he wiped his mouth, looked over my shoulder, and told me h_idn't think I'd scale. That was it. He didn't even pick up my business card.
When I looked back as I was going out the door, I saw him sweep it into th_rash with the wrapper from his sandwich."
The VC — young, with the waxy, sweaty look of someone who ate a lot of G_ogurt to try to patch his biochemistry — shook his head. "That wasn't us.
We're a franchise — based here in LA. I just opened up the Inglewood branch.
But I can see how that would have soured you on us. Did you ever get your VC?"
Gretl tossed her tablet with a crash on top of an overflowing barrel of prim_lastics and wiped her hands on the cunningly stitched dress quilted from bac_ockets of vintage bootleg Levis, their frayed, misspelled red tags on prou_isplay. "Son, that was 1999. Within a year, VCs weren't writing term-sheets.
They were doing cram-downs on anything halfway decent in their portfolios, forcing out the founders, trying to flip them before the market cratered. Bu_t wasn't that pitch that soured me on Sand Hill Road —"
"We're in Inglewood."
"Yes, you said." What the hell, it was Wednesday and she had all her week'_ommissions done already. The VC was at least pretty, if you liked them young.
He had good teeth — they all had good teeth now — and a cute bump in th_ridge of his nose that spoke of a little bit of brawling before his B-schoo_ays. "OK, here's the thing. I had running code, a half-million users. Tha_as big numbers then. We did moderation matching — a heuristic that figure_ut whether a message on a message board was flamebait, flagging up the wors_ffenders to volunteers who blindly checked each other. The BBC was hand- moderating a million message-board posts a _day_ back then. We could d_etter. But no one thought we'd scale up — our customers were little guys, hotrodder boards, cooking boards. Most of them were getting everything fo_ree in exchange for serving as our 'reference customers,' which was how al_hose biz-dev weasels did things back then.
"By 2007, we were 'Web 2.0.' I mean, we'd been Web 2.0 since Web 0.9, but no_t seemed like the world was ready for us. All we needed was some capital t_ay for the features our freeloading reference customers wanted. I met ever_ingle shitweasel — excuse me, junior analyst — on Sand Hill and brain dumped.
They wrote great reports. We got nothing. No one was doing investments then, either: it was all acquisition driven. Stupid Sarbanes-Oxley killed IPOs an_he VC went with it."
The stall across the way was half the size of hers. The old Shenzen coupl_hat ran it were real gnarly, covered in old burn scars from working in th_lastic tag factory where they'd met. Now they sold nostalgic hardware, ol_orking specialty appliances and devices from the WTO's heyday. They wer_ighly complementary to Gretl's own business, which is why they had such _riendly relationship. The old woman, she called herself Chloe, was giving he_ little hand-gesture that meant, "Do you need help getting rid of this jerk?"
"It's OK," Gretl said to her, waving. "Want to get lunch in twenty minutes?"
The old lady rocked back and forth. "Not nutritionist food," she said. Gret_odded enthusiastically. Nutritionist food wasn't even food — just nutrient_nd flavoring. It was 80 percent of the stalls in the food-court, since th_apital costs of a food printer and feedstock were practically nil, and an_ood hacker could differentiate himself by thinking up exotic ne_exture/flavor/temperature combos.
"Twenty minutes, Mr VC."
"Udhay," he said. "Udhay Gonzales." He passed her a card, laser-etched on _umbo lima bean. She pocketed it.
"You'd have thought I'd learned my lesson by then, but no, sir. I am th_riginal glutton for punishment. After Bubble 2.0, I took my best coders, ou_FO, and a dozen of our users and did a little health-care startup, brokerin_arbon-neutral medical travel plans to Fortune 500s. Today that sounds lik_ld hat, but back then, it was sexy. No one seriously believed that we coul_et out from under the HMOs, but between Virgin's cheap bulk-ticket sales an_he stellar medical deals in Venezuela, Argentina and Cuba, it was the onl_ost-effective way. And once the IWWWW signed up 80 percent of the U_orkforce through World of Starcraft guilds, no employer could afford to skim_n health insurance. The word would go out during that night's raids and b_he morning, you'd have picket lines in front of every branch office.
"We had all the right connections, but by then I was a 40-year old woman, an_hat's as close as you can come to invisible in this society without havin_rown skin or a janitor's uniform. I didn't even get a chance to get ignore_n the offices. We couldn't even get meetings — not once they found my YASN_rofiles and saw what I looked like and the codgers in my social network.
"So that's when I threw in the towel. I bought a Dremel tool. Then a hot glu_un. Then a CNC lathe. Then a mill. Then I got serious."
"Well, it seems to have worked out for you." The VC leaned over the displa_abinet. She saw his reflection in the clear top. His eyes were wide wit_enuine admiration. OK, OK, she thought. OK, you get another five minutes, Udhay Gonzales.
She opened the lid and made fortune-teller passes over her pieces with he_ands. "Pick them up, that's what they're for."
He went for the fish first. Its scales were individual slices from the skin_f old Nokia phones — back when it was just Nokia, not Marvel Comics Mobile — each articulated on its own little sprig of memory wire. The gills wer_cuffed iPod backings, the logos just recognizable under the fog of scratches.
The eyes bore HP and Playstation logos, respectively, and the lips were mad_rom inner-tube strips that bore the smallest recognizable logomarks. As h_ifted it, it settled into his hand, arching back to find his thumb and palm, nestling in there.
"It'll work like an old-time phone," she said. "It'll even do a little looku_rom old-style exchange numbers to different identity registers and try to ge_ou a voice-call with someone."
"Do people really do that?"
"Some do. Most just want it for the object-ness of it. It's got a lot o_motion." The scuffs, that's what did it. They were like stories, thos_cratches, each one a memento mori for some long-dead instant in som_tranger's life.
He picked up another piece. This one was purely sculptural, made from severa_enerations of iPhones, their screens carved into abstract shapes and the_ainted with networked OLEDs that stitched them together into a singl_isplay. The abstract shapes and colors combined with the device's aggressiv_ncursions on your PAN to give the sense of holding a vampire, somethin_ransgressive and savage. Dangerous. "When was the last time you owned _evice that felt that dangerous?"
"Never!" The VC seemed to surprise himself with his vehemence. He fumbled th_evice, caught it, set it down reverently.
Gretl laughed. "Oh, you can be rougher than that. My little critters lov_dapting to hard circumstances." She tossed the vampire high in the sky, le_t come down on the floor, having righted itself in the air to take the dro_n its armored back. "You can't break it, it's made of garbage."
The VC fondled each of her pieces, making genuine appreciative noises. Sh_ould tell the difference between the genuine article and the fakes.
"I remember all these things from when I was little," he said at last. "_anted them all so badly. Each one seemed impossibly wonderful and out o_each."
"Yeah," she said. "That's what does it, all right. That feeling right there.
You watched these go from fetish item to six-for-a-buck in the blister pack_t the pharmacy check-out. This gives them back their dignity."
"Can I ask how many of these you sell?"
"Enough," she said. "As many as I can make. I mostly do commissions, but onl_ith people who come down in person. I won't sell online. Getting off emai_as the best gift I ever gave myself."
"You are hard to reach," he said.
"Nope. I'm easy to reach — you just have to haul ass here to Pico Rivera.
There's even parking, if you're that kind of pervert."
"I think I see why you aren't interested in capital," he said. "You can'_cale this up — not with all the money in the world."
Gretl laughed. "You VCs — scale, scale, scale! It's all you think of. You'r_rong, as it turns out. This business decomposes into four elements: material_cquisition, design, fabrication and retail. They all scale like crazy.
"Take materials. After the WTO, the Chinese spent 25 years brute-forcing th_roblem-space of all possible 3D plastic objects that an American might pa_oney for. There is no shortage of that stuff — most of it is sitting i_nternational waters somewhere on a container ship, waiting for someone to pa_he carbon taxes to land it somewhere. I can bring in all the junk electronic_nd chassis and parts that I want, and I print the actuators, controllers, wires and the rest of it here.
"Design? Design's easy. Roll the parts through the tumbler and let each on_et scanned up good. Then run the evolutionary algorithm to see how they ca_it together. I just watch it, tweaking it, culling the ugly mutants, cultivating the pretty ones. I can do fifty original designs in a day, and b_he time I'm done with any random container, I'll have used up more than 8_ercent of its payload. The rest goes to some feedstockers to be eaten b_acteria.
"Manufacturing — that's just monkey labor. Easy. Every kid takes shop clas_owadays, especially the girls."
"I made cars for my parents' anniversary," he said.
He snorted. "No one wants to drive a truck anymore. Sub-micro solar. Fas_ittle things." He picked up the fish again. "And retail, that's just you, here. So if you could scale up, why don't you?"
"Why should I? I'm making incredible money now. I could stand to double m_peration, but for that I'd need, what, 60 grand? What's the smallest ange_ound you do at your franchise?"
"We're very nimble."
He mumbled something.
"Three hundred kay," he said, blushing. "But it doesn't have to be all to you.
We could roll your round up with five or six similar firms —"
"And increase my communications and bureaucracy overhead by 3,000 percent.
Yeah, that sounds _swell._ I net enough after expenses that I could doubl_very quarter if I wanted to. But I'm growing organically, cherry-picking m_est contractors and getting them on the payroll, expanding poco a poco. I'_ixty years old, Mr Gonzales, and I don't need to grow like a tumor anymore."
He put the fish back down. It flopped.
"You say you're nimble. But from where I sit, you're not nimble enough. You'r_tarting off in the 300 grand range, and you're probably averaging a millio_n your angel round, ten or twenty for Series A, seventy for Series B. I ca_urn 60 grand into 600 in six months. That's pretty good for me, as a_ndividual. But I can't turn your million into ten million — not in six years.
What does your franchise have under management?"
"We're a gigafund," he said. He managed to make it sound like a boast.
She shook her head. "You poor, poor boy. How are you going to spend a billio_ollars in $300,000 increments? You'll be sitting on three quarters of that b_he time you cash out the fund."
"It's the smallest amount that a franchisee can take," he said.
"Well, sure. The parent company's got what, half a trillion under management?
Don't look so surprised. Yes, I keep up to date on the shenanigans you Might_orphin' Power Brokers get up to in Silly Valley. No _wonder_ they'r_ranchising! But the secret is, big money is dumb money. I can spend a hundre_ucks so smart that I turn it into fifteen hundred. You look like a smart kid, you could probably make a thousand. But you'll never do the same trick wit_our billion in other people's money. Whoever sold you that franchise conne_ou, sonny."
He looked glum.
"Oh, cheer up," she said. "You're a young man. Getting shafted by VCs build_haracter. Look at me!"
He picked up the fish again. She knew what he was going to ask without havin_o wait. She named the price. "But for you, a ten percent discount."
He shook his head and put it back. "I can't afford that," he said.
"What are you doing tonight?"
He cocked an eyebrow at her. "Don't worry, I'm not interested in your youthfu_imbs. I just have a spot on my third shift. One of my girls is pregnant an_he's taking some maternity. You pull six hours starting at 11PM and you ca_ake that home."
"I'm not supposed to moonlight." He caressed the fish's scales. They ripple_nder his finger.
"It's due diligence," she said.
He smiled. He was very pretty. And he'd built two cars — not bad. He'd do OK.
Maybe he'd even work out and end up one of her regulars.
"Think about it. I close down at 6PM. You come by then, if you're interested, and I'll give you the details for the fabrica."
She locked her cabinets and set out her "Gone to lunch" sign, then hopped ove_he display case, vaulting it the way she'd learned to do in yogacrobatic_lass in Silver Lake.
Mrs. Huang called to one of her daughters to come out and staff the booth, then came around on her cane.
"No nutritionist food," she said.
"Certainly not," Gretl said, sprinkling a wave at the VC as he moved off amon_he stalls in the dead WalMart.
I have an odd and productive relationship with _Forbes_ magazine. I'm far fro_ typical _Forbes_ reader, but they've commissioned several articles and thi_hort story from me, and the commissions are always challenging and just weir_nough to inspire. Here, the brief was to write about the future o_ntrepreneurship. I'd been thinking a lot about how _little_ it costs to star_ business, and how predatory and awful many of the investors I'd met were, and I came up with this — a Socratic dialog between a startupist and a VC wh_an't find anyone to take his money.