On a mission -- with fun

Internet millionaire from Md. launches new venture

December 13, 2007|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN REPORTER

NEW YORK -- -- John Ferber is wound up tighter than a terrier, lording over a laptop set up on a cocktail table in the middle of the room. Above him, a disco ball turns slowly. Behind him, the open bar. He zips through pages of his PowerPoint presentation, pausing briefly to sip from a Captain and Coke.

In roughly half an hour, he's holding a coming-out party - a "media launch" - for his latest company. It's an advertising-supported, free social-networking site, called Cellware, that helps people create and distribute personalized ringtones and other mobile phone content, like screen wallpaper (Ferber's girlfriend is so far the most downloaded).

It's the fifth business that the 33-year-old from Owings Mills has started or is starting this year on his mission to find a purpose to the rest of his life - the curse of becoming a multimillionaire at age 30. And it answers the question of what he's been up to since he blew town after unceremoniously walking away last year from Baltimore's Advertising.com, the company he and his brother built.

Most business people would just hold a news conference to announce such new endeavors, or maybe send out a fact sheet. Not Ferber. That's not how he rolls.

Instead, he's flown in from his new home in Florida and rented the Havana Room at 76th Street and 2nd Avenue in New York City. His PR team, which includes a Miami Dolphins cheerleader, has stuffed 55 gift bags with press kits and $70 digital photo frames. Appetizer trays will be circulated, drinks poured and a demonstration held.

It's a milestone moment, and Ferber's shot to be taken seriously on his own - without elder brother Scott, whose CEO job at Ad.com sometimes included saving John from himself.

But it's tough to get respect when you've named your holding company Vandelay Industries, after the phony latex company featured on Seinfeld. It's also tough to talk FedEx into making a pickup or to get the Geek Squad to return phone calls seeking service.

"I'm a person who likes to have fun, and it's a fun name," Ferber said over lunch earlier in the day.

"It's different for me than it is for Scott," he said. "I'm swinging for a double, I'm not looking to execute on grand slams."

Advertising.com was a grand slam.

The Ferber brothers combined Scott's business acumen and John's computer wizardry and founded the company in 1998.

It's based on technology that John Ferber created while he was a student at Towson University. He'd figured out how to analyze consumer data to place relevant advertising on Web pages, making it more likely that the ad would attract attention and lead to sales. The brothers were so sure of the system that they planned to charge clients only if the ads were clicked on - unlike other companies, which charged simply if an ad were visible.

This was back in the day before Google was a verb - it, too, incorporated in 1998 - and Internet advertising was barely more than theory.

Three months after the Ferbers set up shop, someone offered them $10 million for the company, but they declined. Six years later, AOL offered them $435 million in cash. They took it and kept their jobs leading the business until 2006, when they left by mutual agreement with AOL.

Since then, 38-year-old Scott Ferber has been focusing on life in Pikesville. He's got his own ventures in the works, though he's not ready to launch anything or talk about his plans.

"I only wish I could be with him in the same way," Scott said, arriving at the party shortly before it was to end. "But [John] lives in Florida and I live up here, and I have three young children. ... I just miss him."

John Ferber specializes in making work fun, being a motivational "cheerleader," as he puts it. He's prone to boisterous bouts of laughter and the occasional howl. For years, he brought his dog, Cody, to work.

But he doesn't want to re-create Advertising.com. He doesn't want that many people and their families depending on him.

"Having another 500-person company for me is not very appealing," John said. "I don't want the pressure."

He wants to help people, which he hopes he can do through a soon-to-be-launched site that encourages people to pair their wealth with those in need. He wants to increase his wealth and that of others, which he plans to do through an investment fund that harnesses the collective intelligence of Web users to pick stocks.

Nowadays, he has about 20 people working for him. Some are former employees of Advertising.com. He stocks the office refrigerator, has a massage therapist come by the office every two weeks, pays for health care coverage and has promised to shell out $1,000 to anyone who quits smoking or meets some other personal goal like getting into shape.

"He'll do the things that no one else will do," said Cellware's product manager, Rosemary Radtke. She worked with Scott in the mid-1990s at Capital One Financial Group, and John recently recruited her for his enterprises.

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