Unicorn Dreams

March 31, 2016   •   By Jeremy N. Smith

The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2016 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journalbecome a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com.


MY COUSIN ETHAN drives a 2006 Acura TSX. “It’s a company car,” he tells me. “Was a company car. Now it’s my car.” He turns on the satellite radio, fiddles with the touch-screen settings. A slow percussive beat fills the vehicle. A woman’s voice enters, half murmur, half moan. “This is the chill station,” Ethan says. “You put this on when you pick up someone and you want them to chill.”

I arrived in San Francisco last night, en route to a journalism conference in Santa Clara, and Ethan met me after dinner. This morning, when he offered to drive me to the San Carlos Caltrain station, halfway to Santa Clara, I agreed out of curiosity as much as convenience.

I’m 37 and Ethan is 34. As a teenager, he bounced around a half-dozen high schools in California before graduating from a quasi-military academy in Montana. He never went beyond a semester at community college. While I’ve spent the last 15 years trying to make it as a writer, Ethan has done the same as a tech entrepreneur. We live thousands of miles apart and last saw one another at my grandmother’s funeral six years ago. A cousin is the closest relative who can still be a stranger to you without anyone having done anything wrong.

Ethan zips south through San Francisco toward the highway. He’s a full-bodied six-foot-something, baby-faced with a shaved head hidden beneath a black baseball cap and oversized plastic blue-framed sunglasses. A kewpie doll impersonating a bodyguard.

“I have a meeting this morning in Redwood City — by the Oracle building,” Ethan says. He’s been selling “a little stick” — it looks like a lighter. The stick puts Android, the Google operating system, on your TV. “Smart TV,” people call it. “This guy bought one. He’s Filipino.” Maybe he could be a reseller, Ethan thinks. “He could sell the stick to people who want to stream Filipino TV.”

We enter the 101 at half past nine, joining the long tail of rush hour. Marketing the smart TV sticks provides perhaps Ethan’s only steady income, but it will never be more than piecework. Much greater is the potential for Grush, the “gamified” electronic toothbrush company of which he is one of two cofounders. With a Grush brush, now in prototype, kids can see video replicas of their mouths on any smartphone when they brush their teeth. They get points and advance levels, as in a video game, for cleaning thoroughly. It’s the kind of product that seems ridiculous until, seemingly overnight, everyone uses it, like Netflix, or Airbnb, or Uber, all “unicorns” — the tech industry term for a startup valued at a billion dollars or more.

I own an electronic toothbrush. And I have a four year old. Who am I to say my cousin won’t hit it big?

Ethan tells me he’s trying to get Grush on Shark Tank, ABC’s reality television show about business startups. When he finishes with the Filipino guy, he’ll complete the show application packet and edit his audition video with new testimony from a Harvard-educated dentist turned company consultant. Then he’ll move on to another Redwood City startup, his virtual reality headset maker: ImmersiON-VRelia. “We might change the name,” Ethan says. Today. “I have to do a marketing plan.”

Early afternoon, post–marketing meeting, Ethan will work out and shower at the nearby Jewish Community Center. “Then I’ll see Sebastian, if he’s available.” Sebastian is Ethan’s 12-year-old son. He was a surprise to everyone in our family, Ethan included, when we learned of his existence a decade ago. I’m sure Sebastian’s mother has a name, but I have never heard her referred to as anything other than “Sebastian’s mother.”

Ethan runs down the rest of today’s schedule.

Mid-afternoon: “I’m meeting a guy who’s going to help me manage a crowdfunding campaign I’m doing for a gaming console.”

Late afternoon: “I’ll call this girl to talk about this Uber-of-whatever idea I have.”

Tonight: “Dinner at the Palace of Fine Arts with the director of procurement at Tesla.”

At my request, he explains what’s at stake in each meeting. The guy he’s seeing mid-afternoon is pushing the idea of a crowdfunding “smart queue,” where people who talk or tweet the most about the product they’re helping fund get it before other early backers. The woman he’s calling afterward heads a company that offers in-home facial treatments. Ethan’s “Uber-of-whatever” idea would be a software platform for her or any other service: tour guides, say, or dog grooming. Like Uber, the ride-hailing app, you’d press a button on your phone, see the total price in advance, and the service would meet you wherever you were within minutes, with automatic online payment upon completion. “I kind of want to bring her into the company,” Ethan says of the facialist and his theoretical third or fourth startup. “I don’t want it to be serious, though. My work is already stressful.”

And dinner? Ethan tells me the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, originally built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, now hosts a tech incubator with organized talks like tonight’s with the electric car company procurement chief. “It doesn’t have anything to do with what I’m doing,” he says, “but the food is usually good.”

In the car, Ethan gnaws a strip of teriyaki tuna jerky. His baseball cap advertises what he describes as an “augmented reality motorcycle helmet maker.” “They’re just good at raising money,” Ethan tells me. “I don’t know if they’re going to have a proper product.”

To our left, east out his window, the 101 runs alongside the Bay. I ask Ethan his take on California’s drought. “It’s pretty bad,” he says, chewing. “I think they should bring in the water from somewhere else. Like a pipeline or a giant desalination plant. We’re right on the ocean, right?” He points out Candlestick Park, where the Giants and the 49ers used to play. “They’re tearing it apart,” he says.

It’s 9:50 a.m. As the car in front of us merges right to turn off to the San Francisco airport, we pass a billboard for a Kickstarter campaign advertising “Limitless VR Wearability.”

Ethan grimaces. “I can’t believe it,” he says. “That’s one of our main competitors. We were talking to them about working together.” Now this. “It almost makes me drive off the road.”

Head shaking, he swallows the last of the jerky. “That’s how it is. You have a cool idea. But then all these competitors jump in. They all want a part of it.”

The billboard showed someone wearing what looked like a gas mask plugged into an iPhone. What do these virtual reality devices do? I ask Ethan.

“You put it on and you feel like you’re somewhere else,” he says. Imagine a truly 3-D movie. “You can look around or behind the scene. You can walk around the set from every angle. You control your viewpoint. If there’s a car chase, you feel you’re in the chase.”

The tech talk cheers Ethan. He asks what I’m doing at my conference. I tell him I’m moderating a panel. “I moderate a lot of panels,” Ethan says. “The trick is to get two people to argue.” He tells me another trick: join a foreign press association; it costs less than $100 and, with the ID, you can get into almost any conference for free. “A lot of times, the stuff they give away at vendors’ booths is pretty nice.”

At 10 a.m., the Filipino guy texts to check in. We’re six minutes from my train station, according to the Acura’s built-in GPS system. Ethan gestures dismissively at the car’s readout screen. “That’s 2006. I’ve got to update it.”

We discuss wearable devices. Ethan has one to measure his heartbeat and sleep patterns, he says. But it can’t tell if you have cancer, I point out, or even a common cold. “Can’t dogs detect cancer now?” Ethan asks. I don’t think so, I say. He shares his big public health idea: “Spray vaccines at concerts.”

Traffic slows. Cars bunch up between a red-clay-tile-roofed Marriott and the offices of Salesforce.com. I hear the chill station clearly for the first time since we entered the highway. “They call this the Oracle mile,” Ethan explains. “It’s always bad the mile before you get to Oracle.”

A police cruiser scoots next to us. “Luckily, I got my car registered yesterday,” Ethan says.

It occurs to me that, like Ethan, Larry Ellison, the cofounder of Oracle, never graduated from college. Neither did Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Another billionaire tech entrepreneur, Peter Thiel, the cofounder of PayPal, graduated from Stanford and Stanford Law School, but has become famous recently for encouraging students to drop out, offering $100,000 scholarships to young people who start companies instead of seeking a degree. I ask my cousin if he feels like not having gone to college is actually an advantage in Silicon Valley.

“Well …,” Ethan entertains the question. “It’s cheaper.” He chuckles with embarrassment. “If I applied for regular jobs, it would matter.” And some of ImmersiON’s technology partners are funded by the Chinese government. “When we apply for grants, my colleagues tell me to make up a college.” He shrugs. “Maybe I’ll take some online classes and get at least an AA degree. They’re still kind of expensive. If they had free ones …” His voice trails off, a little wistful. “I don’t have any debts,” he says.

He lives in the Mission, in a free room in an apartment sublet by his father, my uncle Steve. Steve breaks even, though, by having three other renters. “Three roommates,” says Ethan, “is too many for one bathroom.” We pass Oracle’s offices. “They’re built to look like disk drives,” he tells me. Traffic speed increases. Two minutes later, we’re off the highway and onto city streets.

Does he think he’ll get rich doing what he’s doing?

“People have been saying to me, the past 10 years, ‘Oh, you’re going to be a millionaire,’” Ethan says. “I get desensitized. I own shares in all these companies. On paper, they could be worth a lot. But I don’t make much money.” Grush is currently trying to raise $1 million, one-thousandth of a billion dollars. That the funding would mean giving up some of his equity doesn’t bother Ethan. “If that happens, I’ll have a salary,” he says. “But investors look for any reason not to give.”

Everything helps. “We raised $80,000 for Grush — $50,000 through crowdfunding,” Ethan says. They’ve been written up by the BBC, The New York Times, USA Today, and Wired. “We’re going to be on the Steve Harvey show. Steve Harvey is going to brush his teeth with it.” And Philips and Colgate have “pursued” them, he claims. But moving from prototype to factory production is a major hurdle. “We’ll see. We’re just two guys doing it and I have three other jobs. My partner’s concern is that if we don’t do it, we won’t have any credibility. We won’t be able to do anything with anyone ever again.”

I think of the Faulkner line about a business venture that, if it succeeded, would make its founders millionaires. And if it didn’t, everyone would have to change his name and move to Texas. These days, he would have said billionaires. And Bangalore could probably stand in for Texas. Starving artists get all the attention, but there are at least as many starving entrepreneurs.

We pull into the train station at 10:15 a.m. Ethan asks if I know how to get to my hotel once I get off at the other end. I show him printed transit directions. He squints, disbelieving, and speaks into his phone: “Ok Google.” He tells the machine my destination and asks for new directions, based on my specific time of arrival, which I write down. “And you can always get an Uber,” Ethan says. “Call me if you need help.”

He drives off down El Camino Real.


Jeremy N. Smith has written for DiscoverThe Atlantic, and The New York Times, among many other publications. His first book, Growing a Garden City, was one of Booklist’s top 10 books on the environment for 2011. He lives in Missoula, Montana, with his wife and young daughter. His most recent book is Epic Measures: One Doctor. Seven Billion Patients.