Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Calm your tits

They had agreed to meet at a Starbucks within walking distance of Seafood Square, ostensibly to discuss purchasing a booth at HBACE (which Marisa pronounced "H-Backy" as if this wasn't actually more cumbersome than just calling it by its full name), but when she got there it was clear that Monte had his own agenda. His laptop was open and when she tried to join him at his table he ushered her over to one behind him so they were sitting facing away from each other. "What is this," she said. "Shhh. It's market research. We're studying the clientele." "We're doing market research for Starbucks now?" "That couple over there," Monte motioned with an unsubtle flick of the elbow. "They met each other here thru our site." "No shit?" Calisto rubbernecked in the direction he had gestured and he tried again to shush her. "Discretion!" he hissed. "Can I at least sit at your table? I feel like we're secret agents or something." "Fine." She joined him again and they both attempted to watch this couple without being seen. "We need to become familiar with the types of weirdos who actually use the site," Monte said. "I've been tracking several of the most active accounts to no avail, but these two are the most promising ones so far." "Learned anything about them yet?" "Yeah, they're horrible people. I mean, they're meeting at a Starbucks. The girl over there gives her name as Gazelle Fujihara." "Gisele?" Calisto hoped she had heard incorrectly. She was pretty sure it had to be a given name -- a gazelle was about the last animal she'd think of in relation to this girl. More like a mouse or maybe a lobster. "Ga ga ga ga ga," said Monte. "The dude is supposedly named Blaine Makaiwi. Let's check out their profiles and then compare it to how they are in real life." They observed the couple while pretending not to, but Calisto failed to see how this was going to yield any useful data on their users. Blaine was dominating the conversation, going into great detail about a comic book he'd been reading, Gazelle doing her best to stay cordial. Calisto wondered if this had been their first meeting, or just the first one that Monte had decided to crash. He was furiously typing away the whole time as if every asinine word he was hearing was sending him off on another brainstorm. "This feels creepy," Calisto said. "No wonder people aren't signing up if this is what you're doing." "Do you have any better ideas?" He asked this with no hesitation, as if it was locked and ready to go the whole time. "I actually do," she said. "I wanted to talk to you about going offline temporarily." "That sounds like folding." "What I'm thinking is more like a re-launch. I think we should use HBACE to officially start over." Monte just stared back. "You know one interesting thing these two have in common? Neither of them have an online dating profile on any other site. I must've looked through all of them. We're the only service they use. Why do you think that is?" "How do you know they're not registered anywhere else? Maybe their profiles are locked. Maybe they're catfish on the other sites." "Then we are the only ones where they signed up as themselves. You don't think that's interesting? Now we just have to figure out why." "Why don't you go ask them? You've stalked them this far, and it sounds like they could use the company." Blaine had shifted the conversation into a play-by-play of the video game he had been playing the other night. According to his profile, he was ranked Bronze 2 on League of Legends, whatever that meant. "Don't knock the hustle," he said. "Anyway, I like the idea of taking the site down. As long as it comes back up at some point." "Marisa says we'll be able to increase our online profile tenfold. We were the victims of bad timing, that's all." "Put up a 'down for maintenance' sign and pray our users don't abandon us before we get back. I like it. But then what? We're going to the Expo and presenting a business that technically doesn't exist at the moment, how do we convince anybody to invest in it?" "It's not just about finding an investor, we have to make connections. Partnerships and networking and word-of-mouth and such." Calisto felt disgust with herself, spouting these half-remembered business cliches as if she understood them, but she hadn't thought about how it would look if they showed up at HBACE without a functioning website and it was making her reconsider the entire strategy. But then she thought, no, this is a typical jittery Monte misdirect, stay on message, especially after the next thing he said: "Word-of-mouth is only a good thing if you don't look like a joke to everybody. What good is them knowing our name if they can't take us seriously?" "Okay, calm your tits," Calisto said. His voice had been rising, perhaps involuntarily, to the point where Blaine had stopped talking and now he and Gazelle were looking in their direction, as if this drama that was unfolding was just the type of interesting turn of events that makes a good first date memorable. Was this Monte's plan all along, to cause a scene in front of their users to ensure they continued to use the site, just in case something weird happened again? Calisto rejected the idea, but it stayed in the back of her mind the rest of the time anyway. "You're thinking way too far ahead," she told him. "We can worry about what people think of us after they know who we are. For now, can we just focus on what's in front of us?" "Everything is always in front of us," Monte said. "I just prefer to take care of things before it's too late, that's all." He checked his phone for the time although he could have just looked at his laptop screen. "I have to get going," he said. "It's been nice seeing you." "I wanted to ask you something," Calisto said. "Is there any way you could hold down HBACE for me? I want us to be there, but I might not be able to make it." "If you can't be there, I can't be there," he said. "I can send Marisa, she's willing to fill in for me." "Marisa couldn't sell crack to a crackhead," Monte said, standing up. "Let's call this off." "No, wait! I'll be there." "Good. I'm the one who's blowing off a weekend with my kids, Jesus. If I can make it, you can." He left her sitting there, but turned back before he reached the door. "I almost forgot. Call this number." He handed her a card. "Eric told me your roommate's moving out and this guy can help you get set up." "What IS this?" The name on the card didn't seem to be for a real estate agent, but some kind of government agency. "He's a social worker that I know. He helps women in bad situations." "Monte, is this seriously the number for a battered woman's shelter? I can't call this." "Like I said, I know the guy, he'll get you in as a favor to me. It's not that bad, he's helped some of my friends. Eric told me you'd listen to me. You won't listen to them, just me. I'm just doing this for them. I told him you wouldn't listen to me either." "I'm sorry, it's just... you don't have to do this." "Give the guy a call," he said. "Good luck with everything." He left, and Calisto remained at the table being stared at by Blaine and Gazelle. When she returned their gaze, they looked back at each other and resumed as if nothing had distracted them.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Fake informercial

Growth was slow. They couldn't have picked a worse time to get started. The launch party had been the first weekend of October, but although the site had technically gone "live" at that point (in that one could sign up for it and build a profile, but not much else) it would be several more weeks before it was functional in any meaningful sense. Then by the time it was, people apparently weren't flocking to yet another new social/dating thing despite their efforts to publicize as much as possible. Calisto had registered the @lunchdates Twitter handle right away, and set about following as many local people and businesses she could find, but found it difficult to attract much attention amidst all the noise, earning perhaps one followback for every 10 accounts she'd hit up. Both her and Monte went to work canvassing the neighborhood with their piles of photocopied ads, walking to different parking structures around town to stick their little leaflets under windshield wiper blades, until they got harassed by enough security workers to stop it. When this would happen, Calisto would typically turn and run the other way, with they guy still calling out "Excuse me... Excuse me!" Monte, on the other hand, would typically try to talk to the man and attempt to sell him on their concept, who would invariably tell Monte that he was not allowed to accept any solicitation.
It all felt fruitless. "What the hell are we doing," Calisto said as they met up one day after a lunch-hour canvassing session to smoke out their frustrations.
"Building our brand," said Monte. "This is how it works."
"What has given you the impression that any of this has worked?" Calisto said. "Everywhere I go I'm stepping on these things. People pick them up and drop them in the street without looking at them."
"That's good! I want people to see us every time they look down."
"We have to try something else. I'm tracking our numbers and I'm not seeing any results."
"It will come," Monte tried to reassure her. "It's just the time of year."
"You keep saying that, but if it's true why didn't we wait until the right time of year?"
"Is this what you want, or isn't it? We're doing what we can, did you really think it would happen the way you wanted it to?"
Calisto demurred. She was learning to know better than to rise to Monte's baiting at this point. In a way they were getting to know each other more intimately than if they were lovers. The dynamic was similar -- he was constantly trying to talk her out of dissatisfaction. "I didn't want it to happen in any particular way, I just wanted it to happen at all," she said. She hadn't yet told him that the reason she was feeling so much urgency and impatience for things to take off quicker was because Naomi was moving in with Eric in the first week of December. Part of the reason was because she knew it would bring up a discussion about her wanting to redirect the money she was currently sinking into the site to finding her own place, and with Monte already so keen to question her commitment to the whole idea it was a discussion she wanted to avoid.
Adding to her difficulties was the fact that Marisa was getting more and more reluctant to continue to funnel her the money that was, after all, rightfully hers. She had recommended parceling it out slowly at first, both to ensure Almonds could continue to keep some of its revenue and remain open and to keep Lunch Dates online long enough for it to establish some kind of presence in the online world. These things tended to grow best through word of mouth, although there had been times when Monte would mockingly suggest "Let's just Flappy Bird this thing," referring to the practice of paying off
fake consumers to bump their app up in the rankings. The reason this was a mocking suggestion was because there still wasn't an app, and this was most likely the real reason why their growth had stagnated.
They had spoken with several developers, and it had turned out that paying someone to create the app for them would be more costly than they initially thought. The funding situation they were getting through Almonds was getting dicey too. One minute Marisa would be reassuring, telling that Lunch Dates technically wasn't costing her business anything because it was being factored into their "technological" budget. But when Calisto would ask for more than she was getting (which didn't amount to much more than roughly the same salary she was getting at work), Marisa would grow concerned and act as if giving her more would cripple both of them financially.
"Your mother meant for this money to last," she had said. "It's what she was living on."
"This is exactly what she wanted me to use this money for," Calisto responded. "Can I just get whatever I'm gonna get today and be done with it?"
"Are you familiar with the parable of the Prodigal Son? This way, it keeps flowing. Your way, it's gone. Yes, some of it is tied up in Almonds and that's partly why I'm reluctant to give you more. But believe me, your mother didn't want you to throw this at some high-risk venture and end up with nothing. Or worse, owing somebody."
"Things just aren't moving," Calisto said. "I wish she was here."
"She would tell you the same thing I'm telling you. She and I went through this ourselves when we were starting. I know it's tough, but you have to give it time. Come the holiday season, I'll be able to spare a little more for you. But to do what you are asking would be a big legal procedure. Maile wanted it to be this way. I think she even wanted me looking out for you. Your idea is good, you just have to trust that it'll catch on."
Calisto was growing to regret agreeing to this and other arrangements she had made. Even at her job she was feeling new demands being placed on her. She had interviewed for the Loss Inspector position the week after the launch party, and perhaps still riding the buzz from the excitement of her new business had absolutely knocked it out of the park. Loss Inspection meant lost luggage, which meant she really only had substantial work when people called the Customer Service line to report  missing bags, but it required an exorbitant amount of followup, outbound calls and spreadsheet work when they did. Actually the airlines didn't even lose luggage all that often, which meant plenty of downtime. This new wide-open work schedule afforded her the chance to get to know Dominic a little better, since he sat at the cubicle right outside of her new office and would often come in to ask questions or escalate a caller to her or just stay and shoot the shit with her.
She was even beginning to think of Dominic as a silent partner in their operation. He was the only person at work who she'd told about Lunch Dates, and he had agreed to sign up (under the username "D3M0N1C_666" which she had to admit she'd found pretty hot) and to get as many of his friends to sign up as possible, which gave them an early surge in traffic. But getting people signed up to social media wasn't the same thing as getting them to use it, and even though he continued to assure her that his friends were actively using and promoting the site, their usage rates just weren't reflecting that.
"Why don't you guys put up more ads?" he'd asked her one day. His slouch pressed into her door frame, effectively blocking anyone from getting in or out.
"We're cutting back on the type of advertising we've been doing," she said. "The results aren't justifying the cost."
"Well shouldn't you guys be like advertising on TV anyway? You can buy time pretty cheap on Ol─ôlo."
"Great, so we just have to worry about production costs and hiring actor-models."
"You could do it yourselves and put it online for free. I've had this great idea for a fake infomercial that I've always wanted to use, but you can have it cause I'll never have anything to use it on."
"Thanks, but I can't just decide what to do. I have to run it by my partner."
"Why does he have a say? It's your mom's money you guys are using, right?" Calisto had been pondering this question more and more lately. It had been something that had gone so long unaddressed that to call it into question now would seem stranger than just staying the course, regardless of how strange the initial arrangement actually was.
"He's put in a lot of legwork on this thing. He doesn't have to help me. We came up with the concept together, so we're doing it together. Besides, I don't want to go it alone. And I like working with him." She often found herself in the position of having to defend Monte to Dominic, which was prone to happen after she'd spent so much time complaining about Monte to Dominic.
"Well I've heard your side of it, and it sure sounds like you came up with the idea on your own. To me, it sounds like he's taking credit. But to each your own."
There was a definite contrast between the two men, Calisto was thinking. Dominic was a younger fellow and could come across as both frustratingly overconfident and maddeningly insecure in a way that made her want to give him hugslaps. Monte, on the other hand, never made her feel like she had to build him up. He was himself sans apology, even if what "himself" meant was just another barrier against the world. "That fake informercial though, he might just go for it," she told him, wanting him to feel better while talking to her. "He likes cutesy things like that, sometimes."
"Did you ask him about that conference that's coming up?" Dominic was referring to the 2014 Hawaii Business & Commerce Expo, a trade show that came around after the holiday season. Calisto had mentioned this to Monte once, and he had balked because of the entrance fee. But that was before the situation had become as dire as it was now, and at this point she saw no reason not to spring for it, even if finding an additional investor turned out to be a pipe dream.
In fact, the only reservation she'd had about it at all was a petty, personal one, or so she told herself. It would be ridiculous to hold out based on this, she wanted to believe. There's too much at stake to let such a trivial matter get in the way, she attempted to reason. Yes, the 2014 Hawaii Business & Commerce Expo shouldn't be avoided at all costs just because there was an extremely high probability that James was going to be there.