Full speed ahead to silicon alley

With a programmer who loves fast cars and fast computers, togglethis finds a home in New York's new media hub.

February 01, 2000|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SUN STAFF

Marc Singer is exasperated. He's an artist and entrepreneur who wants to build interactive characters for the Internet, but to do so he needs a computer programmer -- a notoriously expensive and eccentric species.

His first and only choice, Rajan Parthasarathy, is driving, literally driving, a hard bargain.

The first thing 20-year-old Raj bought after graduating from college was a sleek, black Mitsubishi Eclipse. His $432 monthly car payments, the rent on his one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey, and his frequent speeding tickets ate up nearly all of his salary from Times Mirror Multimedia, where he met Marc. And at the moment, he's entertaining an offer from Microsoft -- despite a distaste for Bill Gates so strong that he has invented a computer game called "The Billy Killer."

But a job at that big, slow-moving company is far less appealing to Raj than a position at a daring, lightning-fast start-up. He tells Marc he'll join togglethis only if he makes enough to keep his car.

Marc and his partner, Paul Maya, have no financial backers, no money coming in. Their only reliable source of cash is a plastic pumpkin full of loose change in Paul's apartment. They also have no technical skills. Paul has only rudimentary computer knowledge, and Marc has trouble programming his VCR. The fate of their enterprise, they realize, rests on a sports car.

Seeing little choice, they clinch a deal with Raj.

Sensing that more hard times lie ahead, Raj gives Marc a copy of "The Grapes of Wrath."

"You must read this before you die, Markie," he says.

If Marc and Paul are not stereotypical Internet entrepreneurs, Raj is not a run-of-the-software computer programmer. He is loud and funny and a bundle of contradictions. Yes, his living room is dominated by a poster from the movie Independence Day -- in which a programmer saves the world -- but he prefers reading classic literature to seeing movies. He drives so recklessly that he is constantly in trouble with the New Jersey authorities.

"Raj is convinced he's the central character in an action film," says Paul. "He is not constrained by the parameters of others."

It was the desire for speed that first brought Raj, at age 13, to Evanston, Ill., from his home in Madras, India. His father believed a talented boy who had mysteriously lost much of his hearing would advance faster in America. In high school, and later in college at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Raj felt twice isolated, a deaf person in a foreign culture. But he found solace in fast computers, the fast-skating Pittsburgh Penguins, and fast cars.

"I share a birthday with Gandhi," he says. "But I like speed and violence. I find them comforting."

At togglethis, Raj works for free at first, while Marc and Paul look for money to pay him and to move their office from Paul's apartment in Hoboken, N.J., to New York City's new media hub: Silicon Alley.

Within walking distance from the Flatiron Building -- the 97-year-old triangle-shaped landmark where Broadway, Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street meet -- are the hundreds of software and Internet start-ups that make up the Alley.

Silicon Valley in northern California may be awash in technical know-how. But New York is still richer in financial, advertising and artistic expertise -- the skills Marc must blend to make his fledgling company work. South of the Flatiron is Greenwich Village, the city's artistic capital. To the east lies Madison Avenue. To the north, in Midtown, sit the studios of America's entertainment and media powers. The towers of Wall Street are clearly visible a mile away.

None of these established industries started as fast as Silicon Alley. In 1995, the presence of Internet firms here was negligible. By 1998, according to one accounting firm's survey, some 32,000 people worked in new media -- more than in New York's venerable publishing or advertising businesses. Firms are opening at a rate of 1,000 per year, making Silicon Alley an important rival for the energies of new college graduates who for generations have descended on New York to chase their dreams and make their marks.

The young people who join companies like Marc's take risks. An estimated 80 percent of Alley firms have annual revenues of less than $1 million. Within three years, one in three will close. Turnover averages more than 70 percent in the first 18 months. Average annual pay is $37,000 -- a pittance in Manhattan, where $1,500 a month for the tiniest one-bedroom apartment is a bargain. Raj may seem unreasonable, but he demands a salary of only $42,000.

As Marc phones friends who might help him raise money, Paul labors over their first business plan on his PC, which frequently crashes. On weekends, the two go to Wall Street to use the computer and empty office of Marc's friend Gineane Stalfort, who works for a major investment firm. Paul, having mined all the dimes and quarters in the plastic pumpkin, pays their train fare with nickels.

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