Saturday 01 Oct 2016

Entrepreneurial Spirit
David Simmonds

They say there is always a niche for the entrepreneurial spirit to exploit. Selling chic, overpriced coffee has always been held up as a prime example, but here's another example - a business that targets the people inside those coffee bars.

Portland, Oregon resident Melvyn Mead was once an anthropology student with time on his hands. "I used to walk into my local Starbucks" he said "and wonder how everyone else could look so desperately engaged. It made me feel I was the only one who didn't have a life. But I looked around more carefully. I saw a guy talking into a cell phone that wasn't turned on. Another guy was just playing solitaire on his computer. And one woman wasn't reading Margaret Atwood: there was a Betty and Veronica comic hidden behind the book".

And that, he claims, was his moment of truth (as well as his key to riches). "People go there because they're lonely and want to meet people" he said, "and they think they have to send out a signal that they are interesting people, so utterly absorbed in their own lives that they really don't have time to be in the coffee bar at all". And so the thought came to him: if that's the game, then why not help people play it well. So he set up shop as the world's first coffee bar outfitter - www.groundswellers.com.

His most basic product: a dress guide. "If you're going to Tim Horton's, sweat pants and a Winnipeg Blue Bombers T shirt are fine, but you won't get any mileage at Second Cup. I recommend clothing by Mountain Equipment Co-op or some other outdoor clothier, and a hand held Subaru brochure".

And then it gets a little more sophisticated. "But that's ok" said Mead: "my customers are sophisticated people". His interactive phone program - "Coolchat" - is designed to showcase the client caught up in a vitally important telephone conversation. All the customer has to do is dial in, and hang up. Within two minutes, the phone will ring back and the customer will be prompted through a pre-recorded conversation with a former U.S. president, a Nobel Prize winner, a football coach, a non-incarcerated corporate chief executive or Tom Cruise. The program also comes with an "inadvertent speakerphone" option, which allows the user to "accidentally" let anyone in the immediate vicinity hear the party on the other end of the line.

Mead admits Coolchat isn't cheap, but there's a good reason. "I realized we might have a problem when three guys in a downtown Portland coffee bar all took calls from Bill Clinton at the same time. So we've moved to a 'site licence' approach. And its very important to pay for program updates. I remember one guy last year who suffered some acute embarrassment when he took a call from Ronald Reagan: if he'd bought the update, he'd have known that Reagan had died".

Another popular product is "Monkeytype", a one-keystroke program that instantly generates a novel in progress on the computer screen. "It doesn't matter what keys you type" said Mead "all you do is key in a preference for children's literature, speculative fiction, or searing indictment" and an appropriate text will appear in response to the keystrokes. "We had a lady in Washington producing Stephen King at the rate of one page per word typed, until someone looked over her shoulder. We gave her all her money back, of course. And we paid for her coffee".

A product that is proving popular on the east coast is "Petposer". Borrowing from manufacturing's "just in time" inventory delivery concept, a company employee will meet the client within a few blocks of the coffee bar and hand over a preselected pet, to be rented for the coffee shop visit. On the way to the bar, the customer is briefed on the pet's name and idiosyncrasies, and on skills in maintaining a look of bored detachment. "All our pets are fully housetrained" said Mead "although we recommend keeping them away from espressos and lattes, just in case". The payoff rate for pet use is the highest of any of his company's products, claims Mead.

The company is also experimenting with a child rental program, although Mead admitted there had been a few "interactive difficulties" in initial trials. "It was pretty awful" he admitted. "The rental equipment started moaning that he wanted to go to McDonalds, and then his mother, who didn't have him that weekend, walked in a few minutes later. She hadn't been aware of the program, and made some rather disparaging public comments".

So what if your outfitting and planning results in a human interaction, but you have that sinking feeling it's not going to work? "I've thought about that" said Mead "and we have some interesting stuff coming out of the lab". Such as? "Well, it's all proprietary of course, but we're working on a beta test of "Throbpod", which will enable your iPod to be heard at full blast while your conversation partner is unaware of it. And we're thinking of linking it to your e-mail, so that if you get an important message about discount Viagra or something, it can be streamed into you straight away".

One last question for Mead. Why not set up your own coffee bar chain? "I don't make very good coffee" he replied. "But if I could meet someone who did, I've certainly got the beans...." If not the sense of humour.

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Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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