The Pressure Of Prime Time

Bozlo seeks a sponsor and now his creators must perform. Can togglethis build and program the beast in four short months?

February 04, 2000|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SUN STAFF

At John F. Kennedy International Airport, Marc Singer boards a plane heading west, bringing a laptop, a garment bag and two stubborn characters: an interactive cartoon beaver and himself.

It is January 1997. Bozlo Beaver now exists. But he is only a demo in the computers of Marc's Internet start-up, togglethis.

For two years, Marc has talked about creating episodes of an interactive Internet cartoon that can be delivered to computer users with all the simplicity of an e-mail message. But who will care to receive such a message? In turning aside Marc's requests for funds, some venture capitalists have argued that this central hurdle -- generating interest -- is more than Marc can manage.

Even Marc's partner, Paul Maya, and his financial officer, Jason Scott, have doubts about how far Marc and the beaver can take them. Distributing Bozlo, they agree, will require togglethis to find corporations willing not only to defray the cost of the shows, but also willing to use their high profiles to attract attention to Bozlo. The beaver, the young men at togglethis have decided, needs his own sponsor.

Their business plan had mentioned Intel as a company that might embrace interactive characters. But what chance does Marc have approaching the huge computer chip maker? The business plan, after all, had been written on a PC so primitive that it didn't have an Intel Pentium chip. And while Marc may be creative, he has never closed a deal.

In spite of Paul and Jason's skepticism, Marc, sitting in coach, is confident. He has called his contacts, and luck, so far, is with him. Intel, Marc has learned, is an advertiser in Launch, the Internet music magazine founded by Marc's friend Dave Goldberg in Santa Monica, Calif. From Goldberg, Marc hears that Intel is about to begin a TV advertising campaign with its new mascots, the colorful, space-suited Bunny People. And Goldberg, with little prodding, agrees to introduce Marc to Intel's technology guru.

On the phone and in a half-dozen e-mails, Suzanne Brisendine is impressed with Marc's sense of humor. Marc's trip -- to meet with Intel's advertising agency in Salt Lake City -- is her idea.

As it turns out, the creative people in Utah bond with Marc, who before starting togglethis had briefly written ad copy to support himself. With Brisendine's help, Marc is instantly on another plane toward another meeting, at Intel's Silicon Valley offices.

At the San Francisco airport, Marc rents a convertible and drives to Intel's offices in Santa Clara. Casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt under an open flannel shirt, Marc fits right in. He opens up his laptop to show the Bozlo demo, and before taking questions, suggests that Intel sponsor e-mail shows of Bozlo of about one minute in length. When Bozlo leaves the computer screen, a fluidly interactive Intel bunny person could appear, dancing around a box. After the computer user plays with the bunny person, the box could open, revealing an Intel emblem inside.

There is little risk for Intel in the proposed arrangement, Marc insists. The chip maker will have to pay based only on the number of viewers: a few cents for every single copy of an episode that is sent to a computer user. That's not much, but the money -- and Intel's high profile -- will make all the difference to togglethis.

After the meeting, Marc calls Paul and Jason from his car phone, as he drives up U.S. 101 in the rain, trying to catch a flight to New York at the San Francisco airport.

"I think they're going to do a deal," says Marc, playing it cool for the skeptics back home.

"Yeah, sure," says Jason. Doubt is his first response to all good news.

"What do you mean, 'think?'" Paul asks.

"Well, they want you to fax them a purchase order," replies Marc, triumphantly. "I don't think it gets any more certain than that!"

Marc will quickly follow up the Intel deal with a barter arrangement with the e-mail provider Rocketmail, which promises to promote the beaver on its Web page in exchange for Bozlo urging his viewers to check out Rocketmail. Togglethis has its first big deals, and Bozlo and Marc have emissaries in the online world.

Now both characters must be readied for launch.

The pressure is on Raj Parthasarathy. Cocky on the outside, the programmer secretly begins to think the task of creating this technological beast might be beyond him.

He loves challenges and speed -- fast cars, fast computers -- and building Bozlo will be a race against the clock. Togglethis has promised Intel it will release the beaver, and six episodes of his hijinks, on the Internet by spring. That gives Raj four months. But in darker moments, he wonders if Marc, with his tinkering, has set him up to fail.

Hovering constantly in the office, Marc watches as Raj remakes the togglethis Web page. He meets with Jason and they tweak the business plan. He talks with Gwen, the animator, about reworking the art for Bozlo, making the beaver's face and head bigger to create more space for expressions.

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