Wifi Cat: The Backstory

The following is my account of the Wifi Cat ruse we pulled off last week at Startup Riot 2009 in Atlanta.  This is from memory, so the timeline may be a bit off here or there – but it will give you the gist.

If you are an entrepreneur, and you aren’t plugged into the Twitterverse with other like-minded thinkers, you are already down two strikes.


Birth of a Kitten

Several weeks ago, I was down at the ATDC doing something or another – can’t remember exactly what.  Whenever I’m down there, I try and stop by and say hi to some of my fellow entrepreneurs located in Tech Square who are working hard getting their ventures off the ground.  Of course, I usually end up making the trip down the hall to visit with the rowdy crew over at Georgia Tech’s VentureLab (Stephen Fleming, Paul Freet, and Keith Mcgreggor).  On my drive down I had exchanged some text messages with Paul and we committed to hooking up for a quick lunch to get caught up, as I hadn’t seen him in a while.

At any rate, I walked in and Paul was giggling like a two year old in his office. He said something to the effect of “man, you’ve gotta see this.”  The rest is history.  I think.

Apparently, the VentureLab crew decided to play a joke on Sanjay Parekh, chief organizer of Startup Riot (among other things) and one of the co-founders of Shotput Ventures.  If you don’t know what Startup Riot is, it is basically a really cool all-day fast-pitch event, where 50 companies get their 4 slides and 3 minutes of fame in front of Atlanta’s startup crowd.  Each presenting company is screened and vetted, and offered an opportunity to receive some free pitch coaching.

The joke was pretty simple – create a fictitious company with a completely over the top pitch, and submit it to Sanjay for screening.  Keith and Paul came up with the original concept of “Wifi Cat” – apparently smoking god knows what.  When they showed me the 3 slides that they were submitting to Sanjay for consideration to present at Startup Riot, I literally fell on the floor laughing.

The slides depicted what was obviously a very strange idea – a Wifi repeater connected to a cat collar – the concept being that it would provide roaming WiFi hotspots in your house, AND help you track your pets on the web.  What was even funnier was the overall approach and feel of the pitch – it appeared to be an attempt at a serious pitch, but purposefully made some mistakes often seen with novice or inexperienced entrepreneurs.  That, coupled with such a whacky idea/subject, just made it even funnier.

So, those slides were submitted to Sanjay for consideration (under the fake name of Barry Jarrell) – and eventually we all had a good laugh at it (including Sanjay himself).  Oh, but that wasn’t the end – merely the beginning. :)

The Kitty Grows Up

At some point after we all shared that initial laugh, someone (I think either Keith or Paul, but possibly Sanjay) said “Hey, someone should actually pitch that at Startup Riot – that would be, well, a riot!”  Paul was already set to pitch one of his new startup projects at the event, and Sanjay, being the organizer and moderator of the event, recused himself.  Keith was simply smart enough not to volunteer to do it – lol.  So, I basically said “sure, what the hell – I’ll pitch it!” Sanjay agreed to give us a slot, provided he had enough room in the event schedule.

After a few days (maybe a week), Paul (I think), made the first loose allusion to Wifi Cat on a random tweet of his.  Keith McGreggor, Sanjay, and I all “corroborated” this new company with tweets of our own. This wasn’t really planned, as much as it was just an inside joke being played out on Twitter.  Nevertheless, we all just sort of gently pushed it along.  Other than a few “who is Wifi Cat?” type of replies, nothing much happened initially – but the seed was planted in the Twitterverse.

Of course, soon thereafter, the tweet stream started to pick up, with more and more people asking questions about this new company.  All we would say is “stealth mode” – “unbelievable technology” – “gotta wait until StartupRiot to see it – that’s the coming out party for Wifi Cat”.  The mystery meter started going up …

In looking back, there were basically four things that played a key role in Wifi Cat going from loose references on Twitter to “hot startup.” NOTE: This wasn’t a “plan” by any stretch of the imagination, but in retrospect, it is easy to see the cause and effect of things, and illustrates the viral nature of social media outlets.

1) The New Chairman

One day I was sitting in my office working on some stuff for my day job.  After a while, for no apparent reason, Wifi Cat popped into my thought stream.  I dropped a tweet announcing my acceptance of the role of Wifi Cat’s Chairman of the Board, and the company’s request that I pitch the deal at Startup Riot myself.  I fired up my blog editor and wrote this post, announcing the deal to the blogosphere.  I’ve no idea why I did it – sleep deprivation?  Who knows?  But one thing was for sure – that post cranked the hype meter up a notch or two.

2) The Media Lockout

After I posted, I got inundated with emails and Twitter DMs from people inquiring about Wifi Cat.  What do they do? Are the funded?  Is Sig in on the deal? It was classic.  One of the people that called me a few times was Urvaksh Karkaria from the Atlanta Business Chronicle.  Can’t blame the guy – it seemed like a pretty hot story.  I decided not to call him back right away – because if asked what Wifi Cat was, I would have been hard pressed to (A) keep a straight face and (B) lie to him.

Urvaksh, being a methodical reporter, called several other people – some who were in on the joke, some who weren’t.  Thankfully, those who were in the know kept quiet.  Those that didn’t know about the joke took Urvaksh’s call and inquired to other people about Wifi Cat.  Next thing you know, everyone around town is digging for info on this “hot stealth startup” in Atlanta that is apparently going to change the world.

Note: I’ve since apologized to Urvaksh, and explained why I had to keep him in the dark initially.  He was a good sport about it … thankfully!

3) The Coaching Session

One of the things that Sanjay offered to the companies presenting at Startup Riot was a free coaching session.  Sanjay asked Atlanta angel Jeff McConnell and me if we would help him out at the session,and we agreed.  Right after we broke for lunch, we were sharing some laughs about Wifi Cat.  We then dropped a few tweets about how “amazing” the Wifi Cat presentation was, and how revolutionary the idea was.  A few joke comments were made about me having too many slides (presenting companies were limited to only 4 slides – counting the title).  All in all, it reinforced the growing myth of “the Cat.”

4) The Yates Effect

After the pitch coaching session concluded, Jeff McConnell and I were tossing around ideas.  We thought it might be a funny thing to have someone else within the Atlanta community drop a tease tweet as well.  This person would have to be respected, and not one who would be suspected of being involved in the prank.  A few days before the actual Startup Riot event, Paul Freet reached out to John Yates of Morris Manning & Martin.  John is a very well known attorney in Atlanta who focuses on tech companies.  If Yates is involved in a deal, it most certainly has to be real.

At the time, John was overseas in India.  So he dropped a nifty tweet claiming to have just toured the “WiFi Cat production plant” in India.  Brilliant.  This pushed the hype meter to the limit.

More Random WiFi Cat Anecdotes

After the whole thing went down, I began to hear a ton of backnoise about how WiFi Cat had apparently completely taken on a life of its own.

In fact, one of my own sales guys dropped the Wifi Cat name in a meeting during a random tangent about startups who seem to get a lot of buzz.  It took everything I could do not to completely lose it.

Sig Mosley, the biggest angel investor in Atlanta, told me that one of his portfolio companies (in the WiFi space) reached out to him asking him if he’d heard of WiFi Cat – not knowing if they were a threat or a possible partner.  Sig had no idea at the time, but told them he’d look into it.

The Pitch

As the date for Startup Riot approached, I knew I needed to get the Wifi Cat presentation ready to roll.  I spent a night or two with the original slides and jazzed them up a bit.  We needed to create a logo, a fake product image, some filler material, and of course, some more things to illustrate the pitch mistakes made by many entrepreneurs.

The night before Startup Riot, I spent about an hour or so making some notes for each slide – not a speech, just a few talking points and humorous bits that I wanted to work into the pitch.  I printed them out about 2:00am, and went to bed.  Five hours later, I woke up, took a shower, got dressed, and headed downtown to the event.  Wouldn’t you know it – I left my notes on the printer at home.  Yay!

Of course, I didn’t realize this until I was well over halfway into my drive down to Midtown – so, I had to wing the whole thing.  I must admit, it was hard for me to keep a straight face when I started, as you’ll see in the beginning of the video.  Keep in mind, that I had never actually rehearsed the presentation.

At the time of this writing, Sanjay and crew were still editing the professional video production – but here is a bootleg, courtesy of someone in the audience with a video recorder.

I’ll update this post when Sanjay and crew publish the final videos – but this one will suffice for now, especially since everyone has already seen it.

Update: Replaced the bootleg video with the final one from Flashpoint, the company that Sanjay brought on to produce the event and record each pitch.

Here are the slides that Paul posted on Slideshare. You can browse them while watching the video below it (there are only 4 slides, so it’s pretty short).

Slides:

Video:

The Real Message Here

I tried to end the whole spoof with a positive message for the community – hopefully, the end result was at least adequate.  I truly believe that social media was one of the missing links in the Atlanta startup ecosystem.  WiFi Cat went viral through Twitter and blogs – and took on a life of its own in just a few weeks time.  That is a great indicator that we actually have a startup community in Atlanta now.  It’s all good.

As Paul Freet and I have written about and evangelized before, over the past 25 years, Atlanta has morphed into a “dumbell” of sorts.  We have a lot of innovation centered around Midtown and Georgia Tech, but the vast majority of the personal wealth distribution has migrated northward (10-to-2, northern arc) above the perimeter).  This 20-30 mile distance has long been a thorn in the side of the startup community.  The good news is, social media has created a realtime “bridge” of sorts.  You don’t need to get up at 5:00am just to get downtown for an event anymore.  There is a very real conversation happening on Twitter and in regional blogs, and people can plug themselves into this conversation very easily.

If you are an entrepreneur, and you aren’t plugged into the Twitterverse with other like-minded thinkers, you are already down two strikes.

This is awesome.  We needed social media.  It has, in effect, provided the vehicle we’ve needed to bring the community together in ways that we could have only imagined in the past.

What is interesting about the whole thing is our abuse of “trust” in social networks.  No question, we pulled the wool over more than a few eyes with WiFi Cat.  Granted, we could have just gone around town and spread rumors about WiFi Cat, but technology made it a hell of a lot easier to do, and reached a broader audience.

“I read it on the Internet, so it must be true”, right?

:)

It was great fun, and I hope WiFi Cat lives forever … we have more “special” WiFi Cat announcements coming soon – stay tuned!

Off to get ready for CapitalLounge tonight … hope to see many of you there.  WiFi Cat will be there, in spirit, possibly raising money, maybe not.  I can never truly ascertain their strategy :)

Cheers.

6 Comments

  1. You should brand it and sell merchandise and use the money to put back into the venture community in Atlanta… Just a thought. I loved the pitch.

    John
    johnmwillis.com

  2. Keith McGreggor · February 25, 2009 at 1:16 pm

    I hear the founders of WiFiCat will be there, pitching.

  3. Awesome writeup Scott! I had no clue what was going on for the first 4min of the speech. It was so over the top that you honestly had me thinking at one point “this is so stupid & simple that it could be BRILLIANT!” It’s all a/b simplicity these days anyways, right?

    I love the overall message too. It’s true…social media has built that bridge that not only brings us together despite geographical location, but also has helped make age irrelevant. Anybody can participate in the discussion from anywhere. Great stuff again!!

  4. I was skeptical about this Wifi Cat deal as the buzz around it built up.
    That was, until I saw Yates’ tweet. I even sent him a direct message asking for the “scoop.”
    I got no response, which should have been a clue considering he is typically great about getting back with me.
    Getting Yates involved was the best part of the gag. Masterful!

  5. Scott, I saw your “pitch” on WiFi cat last week. It was GREAT!!

    I think the idea of a cat tracker was done over 20 years ago by Dale Heatherington to find out what his cats did all day. It did not have the WiFi access point, so your “patent” claims will be okay :)

    Dale was the inventor of the Hayes Modem and created in infamous “AT” Hayes character set. I worked with him when the Hayes company was less than 5 people in 1978. I have not spoken with him in years, but his website can be viewed at http://www.wa4dsy.net

  6. Scott, this is fun.

    Everyone can keep an eye on WiFi cat right here: http://www.prmetrics.com/wificat

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