A FABLE FOR OUR FEVERED TIME, OR IS IT TOO CLOSE TO REALITY?

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The ipo was set to go out and Gumby Hand-werker was nervous. She'd taken nothing but bad hits the last few weeks: Her former CFO was suing her; her lead investor had poured money into a new competitor; the press was filled with reports her employee turnover rate was 50% higher than her industry's average.

But Goldman and Merrill told her to calm down. The IPO market for startups in her field was sizzling. And Gumby was sitting on a trendy content play, targeting women in a medium known as a man's domain. The underwriters were so confident they repriced the offering to $24 a share from $18. If luck and Alan Greenspan were in her corner, within a few hours her company would have a market cap north of $1.5 billion. After all, she was a certified veteran of the hottest new communications technology since movable type:

Matchbook covers.

A lot of folks still shook their heads. Matchbook covers were a fad, they said. When the bubble burst-when Kalahari.stick stopped meeting growth targets, or America On Stick had to show real profits, or those big aggregators, the match boxes, failed to ignite-it would drag down the rest of the economy.

Those old-timers were missing the point. Matchbook covers were a terrific medium for niche psychodemographic marketing. It used to be thought the only people who handled them were cigarette smokers. Then it dawned on some risk-loving entrepreneurs that they also fell into the hands of lots of other consumers. Cigar aficionados. Fireplace owners. Candle lighters. Recreational arsonists. These people returned to them again and again-20 times a matchbook, in fact-allowing providers and their content partners to reinforce their messages.

It was clear those messages, in the parlance, "stuck," and led directly to commercial transactions. Think of the old days. How many people signed up for stenography courses after flashing their eyes a few times on "IF U CN RD THS U CN GT A GD JB"? How many cartoonists were minted from matchbook courses? It was a hell of a business-if you could tap it.

That's where Gumby Handwerker came in. Gumby had been around the fringes of the media industries a long time. She'd sold advertising, done direct-response fulfillment and for a brief period had even run the upscale version of cable TV's first transportation service, the Home Shlepping Network. When she heard matchbooks were hot on college campuses, she knew all it would take to turn them into a mass medium was salesmanship.

Gumby had a natural affinity for the game: As a child, she'd been president of her local Gene Rayburn Fan Club. So she incorporated stickCity LLP and started selling, and selling big. There were real advantages to matchbook covers as a communications medium and, more significantly, as a device to facilitate transactions, she told anyone who'd listen. First, they were portable. Not just portable-tiny. So tiny, in fact, 13 or more could fit in a shirt pocket without causing a bulge. Old media, such as magazines, needed to be rolled up.

Some Luddites complained the small surface area of matchbook covers rendered them next to useless in conveying information in an entertaining fashion. That was the brilliance of Gumby's business model; it was built on providing useless information, much of it available elsewhere, in a fundamentally boring way. In other words, stickCity was exactly like the old media it sought to replace! It was even staffed by old-media editors and writers, designed by old-media art directors and sold by old-media ad salespeople.

This revolutionary business model made old-media companies so comfortable they readily invested in stickCity. Not with cash, mind you; only day traders did that, most of them former truck drivers and home health aides with, as you'd expect, money to burn. The old-media companies invested a much more valuable form of capital: promises to advertise stickCity's matchbook covers on their own matchbook covers.

That was all it took. When stickCity's IPO went out, the price soared, touching $102 per share before settling at the close at $84, and turning Gumby into a billionaire. A senior VP at Goldman called to give her the news. But he needn't have bothered. Right at the closing bell she'd heard a roar outside her window in Cardboard Alley. When she looked out, she saw thousands of young men and women torching all the bills in their wallets.

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