New Characters Move In

Bozlo gives way to a robot, a dragon, Freddy Krueger and Austin Powers. But success boosts the pressure: Does togglethis need a new leader?

February 07, 2000|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SUN STAFF

Marc Singer steps out of a cab at 151 W. 25th St. and takes the elevator up to the third floor. Opening the steel door to the offices of togglethis, his Internet start-up, he eyes three mannequins from the shop next door that stand in the hallway, naked to the world.

"I know how they feel," he says.

It is late summer 1999, and with the success of its first interactive character, Bozlo Beaver, togglethis has stepped into the public spotlight. There is no longer time to play with Legos on the conference room table or the five Mr. Potato Heads, dressed as the disco group the Village People. On the desks where interactive characters are being built lie dozens of Tylenol tablets.

Marc and his partner, Paul Maya, have established the trappings of corporate life, from an office Christmas party to quarterly financial statements. And they have attracted competitors who are -- in the fast-changing world of Internet business -- potential partners as well: big firms such as Macromedia and Silicon Graphics that sell software to make characters interactive, and smaller start-ups such as ThingWorld.com of Massachusetts that offer interactive ways to deliver marketing messages.

To stay ahead, Marc and Paul have become harder characters. Paul, the even-tempered, clean-living sort, drinks coffee now, and Marc shows up for work in slacks rather than jeans. The two draw regular salaries (more than $60,000 a year), and take regular vacations. They also have built a formidable board of directors, including software giant Jim Hebert; Bob Perry, a Texas businessman with experience in software and biotechnology; and Richard Tait, a Microsoft millionaire.

During board meetings, Marc pays particularly close attention to Michael Gale, an Australian venture capitalist from Silicon Valley famous for scheduling important business meetings at Starbucks. Slowly, Gale's role in the company has grown.

Only Rajan Parthasarathy, the company's fast-talking, fast-driving programmer, seems unhappy about the more businesslike atmosphere. "Marc still dresses bad, but better than before," says Raj. "He is much more serious. Paul is [also] much more serious," he adds. "To be honest, everyone here is a lot more boring than they used to be. I'm the only true togglethis character left."

In just three months, by November 1999, the company's character -- and the future of Marc and Paul -- will change once again.

After the deal to sell Bozlo Beaver to Warner Bros. Online in November 1997, togglethis became a magnet for publicity in the Internet trade press. But the ornery, interactive beaver who lives on computer desktops wasn't fully embraced as part of the Looney Tunes gang.

Jim Banister, the Warner executive who cinched the deal, said the company would make Bozlo a focus of Internet advertising and plaster his impish face on T-shirts. But Warner waited three months before launching two new Bozlo episodes. He was briefly used as a pitchman for the new anti-smoking pill Zyban. Despite a strong response, the beaver's presence on the Internet diminished. He is now available only on an inactive Warner Bros. Web site.

Even as he faded, Bozlo launched the future Marc and Paul had foreseen: an Internet where computer users can participate in the stories that unfold on their screens.

Suddenly, ad agencies, cartoon syndicates and entertainment companies read about the contract with Warner, saw the beaver on the Internet, and came calling.

Everyone, it seemed, wanted their own Bozlo.

For the New Line Cinema movie "Lost in Space," togglethis created six, minute-long interactive episodes using the film's robot as the main character. Visitors to the movie's Web site downloaded an Interactive Character engine and signed up to receive each episode by e-mail. More than 90,000 people subscribed -- almost as many, joked Raj, as saw the critically panned movie. The New York Times praised it as the first interactive film trailer.

Togglethis followed that triumph with a similar promotion for Disney's "Mulan," using the film's dragon as the interactive character.

"It's amazing to hear about the corporations Marc deals with now," said his friend, Maria Whitley, at the time. "Now the possibility of him being wealthy is not that far-fetched. ... You know, he's gotten a lot better looking, hasn't he?"

Producing more and more interactive episodes, Marc began to resemble the Internet version of a Hollywood studio head, with his own stable of characters. Togglethis' Interactive Character Studio, designed by Raj, became Marc's new-age answer to his favorite childhood toy, Legos. Using this software -- the same Lego blocks -- every time, he could create distinctive, interactive stories no one had ever seen before.

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