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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY

Dogged 'Dot-Com' Dreamers Persist in Pursuit of Riches

Entrepreneurs: For every Silicon Valley millionaire, there are a thousand hopefuls mobbing investors at networking events.

October 09, 2000|JOSEPH MENN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALO ALTO — After working a full day and then buttonholing investors for three hours, exhausted entrepreneur James Nguyen still ends each sentence with an exclamation point.

"It's called Moviehead.com!" the 34-year-old chief executive barks at a venture capitalist who is nodding cautiously. "We're like Yahoo for movies! See free films on the Internet!"

Actually, Moviehead is an Internet film portal, offering links to films on other sites as well as serving up old films such as "Meet John Doe" that can be watched on the Net.

Then another potential investor, Bob Beaumont, listens for less than a minute and learns that 20-month-old Moviehead has taken in only $15,000 in revenue this year. "If he's been out there that long and hasn't made it, he's not going to," Beaumont says.

But Nguyen, sporting a white baseball cap with the brightly colored Moviehead logo, has already gotten both investors' business cards and begun shaking hands with the networking event's next prospect.

"Action, passion, persistence! That's the trait of any great entrepreneur," Nguyen says, undaunted by the brushoffs that come even faster now that the Nasdaq index is skidding. "Moviehead could be the next media empire. It could happen--look at AOL!"

For every Silicon Valley millionaire, every Jerry Yang of Yahoo and Meg Whitman of EBay, there are a thousand dreamers like Nguyen.

"They watch these visible, successful entrepreneurs, and they are almost heroes to them," said Ruthann Quindlen, a partner at Institutional Venture Partners, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif. "They just have a passion. That is the first step toward being a great entrepreneur."

Some of these would-be entrepreneurs came to Northern California with good ideas that somebody else already had or with business models that don't work.

The proposals can be as banal as the plan for Creamsoda.com, which was going to sell one flavor of soda over the Internet.

The dreamers are the ones mobbing investors at networking events that turn out to have too many entrepreneurs and not enough investors. They also call, write and send e-mails by the dozen. And they show up unannounced at the door of venture capital firms on Menlo Park's celebrated Sand Hill Road, including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Benchmark Capital and Hummer Winblad.

"In many cases, these people are following a dream, and they're not finding a super-receptive audience," said Quindlen, who devoted a section of her recent book on the venture capital life to far-out ideas. "Some don't want feedback; they want agreement."

Among the pitches that have come Quindlen's way: a portable backyard nuclear reactor and an earthworm planting system.

Quindlen and other investors are reluctant to criticize casually. The future is hard to see, and most successful venture capitalists keep famous mistakes close to heart.

Quindlen cites minicomputer pioneer Kenneth Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corp., who said in 1977, "There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in their home." And as strange ideas have grown into companies worth billions on Wall Street during the last three years, there have been more missed opportunities for venture capitalists to regret.

"There are some people that will never take no for an answer," said John-Austin Saviano of Stonepath Group, a small Internet incubator in San Francisco. "The phrase I hear most often is, 'You just don't understand.' "

Nguyen is one of the struggling entrepreneurs who have embraced doggedness over every other quality. He even keeps inspirational quotes handy, such as, "Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent," from Calvin Coolidge.

Born in Da Nang, Vietnam, Nguyen immigrated in 1975 as the Vietnam War ended and graduated from San Jose State with degrees in computer science and philosophy.

Years ago, while working on a commercial for his family's jewelry store in San Jose, he fell in love with movie making. But he was afraid to risk everything for one film that might never get distributed.

As the Net gathered steam, Nguyen decided to work on making films more available. If he succeeded, maybe he would have enough money to produce his own movies.

He never thought it would be simple to get funding. "I expected it to be hard. But not this hard," said Nguyen, who gobbles antacids after every night of his sales pitches. "It takes a toll. Financially, mentally, physically and socially. I lost my girlfriend because of this."

Moviehead's main office is in the San Mateo house where Nguyen and his mother live, one of the ways the firm keeps costs down.

Nguyen spends half his time fund-raising and has raised a half-million dollars from first-round investors, including Don Griffin, a former San Francisco 49ers cornerback. But Moviehead is barely surviving. And because the firm has no proprietary technology and depends on online advertising, its prospects are dim.

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