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From the Archives: The Launch Party

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In honour of the imminent farewell to the City By The Bay, I am including a piece from the heady millennial days. In April, 2000, the tech bubble was just beginning to fray at the edges (heralded by Dr. Diamond's infamous "my poker buddies say I should buy some tech stocks" phone call). Double Barrel and I took advantage by crashing one of the insane launch parties that perfectly captured the zeitgeist.

April 28, 2000
South of Market,
San Francisco

I was slightly early in arriving outside Club NV, on Howard St., in an area of town whose evening desolation belied the frenzied daytime confluence of dot-com drones. Hesitating outside, cellphone in hand, I wondered whether there remained any lingering pretense of exclusivity. Would the financiers of this particular soiree tolerate glib interlopers to their all-important Launch Party?

This term may need some explanation: a Launch Party is the eGilded Age’s equivalent of a debutante’s first ball – the moment when a startup emerges from its boudoir, primped and coiffed before Society. Society, in this case, being Silicon Valley techies, angels, and venture capitalists.

Once we were shooed into the reception area, however, it became quite clear that this party was open to all comers (except, naturally, the elderly). Nobody checked our credentials or even asked whether or not we had been invited (we hadn’t). Formalities ensued: we were the recipients of a gushing welcome by some perky PR bunnies; we were given nametags; our business cards were sacrificed for a raffle; we were presented with coupons for free schlock. Having gained ingress, we made a beeline toward the focal point of a startup’s launch event.

We headed straight for the bar.

It is curious how the very idea of free cocktails causes even the most staid and inveterately sober of individuals to lose all faculties of reason. Curiouser still is the behavior of people when confronted with free food in sparse quantities. Picture a cocktail waitress laden with dainty hors-d’oeuvres emerging from some murky recess only to be beset by a gaggle of grown men and women pouncing on her from every direction. Imagine, if your sensibilities permit, thirtysomethings bounding across the room in order to grab with earnest avarice a cheddar-cheese-and-tomato nacho.

I was aghast.

These people would literally break mid-conversation, scamper ten feet, eagerly grab at a snack and then return to their interlocutors as if nothing had happened. When five or six fellow human beings do this at once, from different directions, the effect is alarming. I struggled to recall where I had seen this type of behavior before. Later, I remembered: the Monte Carlo Aquarium’s piranha cage at feeding time. If every society is three meals away from revolution, I fervently hope that San Francisco catering agencies and eateries have sufficient capacity to meet demand.

Having downed a gin and tonic, I re-equipped myself with a screwdriver (the kind you sip) and headed to the small clumps of cocktail-chatterers. The conversation was predictable: job descriptions; business model summaries; stock market opinions. The attire ranged from the dolorous “business casual” to rather smart evening wear. One eager young man even showed up in a suit, but it turned out that he had just arrived three weeks ago from the East Coast and was looking for a job. “Three weeks?!” a tall, smirking guy exclaimed loudly, “I’m surprised you haven’t found anything yet!” The poor shmuck in the suit was clearly 404 – Valley-speak for without a clue.

The Suit Guy was engaged in the only conversation I heard throughout the evening that centered on the business of the startup that was funding the whole shebang. To this day, I have no idea what that company was pretending to do.

Mid-way through the evening, after numerous cocktails and Michael Jackson numbers, a formal acknowledgement was made by our hosts. A gentleman with a Slavic accent grabbed a mike on the makeshift podium and gave a speech thanking people for coming and breathlessly describing the cosmically wonderful prospects for his nascent enterprise.

It is difficult not to become reflexively wary whenever one is confronted by the vacuous optimism of the internet set. Every obstacle is thought a challenge, every setback an opportunity. This mentality is essential for the advancement of a dynamic sector of risk takers, and is a tribute to America’s entrepreneurial spirit. However it makes for catastrophically moribund conversation. Nasdaq is up? Great! Increased valuations will spawn greater Valley prosperity. Nasdaq is down? Perfect! This will weed out the also-rans, alleviate the labor shortage, and maybe even moderate the spiraling cost of real estate. The overarching enthusiasm permeating the entire room quickly became a nauseating perfume of sanguinity.

Mind you, it was not the perfume of success. There were at least five other parties that evening in late April, Y2K, and this particular one was clearly not the province of parvenus and newly-minted millionaires. This evening’s crowd was populated by an earnest set of newcomers to the internet feast who were both eager to grab their share of the riches and at the same time were pestered by a nagging doubt that the party was over and The Great Shakeout had begun. That this surreptitious whisper even existed was all the more reason to maintain a feverish optimism at all costs.

By 9 o’clock, the abundance of liquor and absence of any food of real substance caused the crowd to thin as merrymakers departed for more gastronomic districts such as the Marina or the Mission. Anyway, a San Francisco party never lasts very late – one wouldn’t want to compromise the next morning’s frenetic pursuit of glittering digital gold.

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  • I'm Sunset Shazz
  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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