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In on the Ground Floor: Would My Investment in a Friend’s Scheme Really Seal My Fortune?

March 19, 2014
by Jeremy Sherman
Man surrounded by popcorn

Graduation was near and other seniors were scrambling for work. I knew I was set. I had met a brilliant entrepreneur and was investing my time and savings in his sure-fire venture that guaranteed me both a job and untold millions.

His plan was literally airtight: Create a device that would improve upon the highest volume manufactured product—the sealed bags used for everything from dry macaroni to potato chips.

And what was wrong with those bags? They weren’t re-sealable.

His solution was to invent industrial sealing jaws that would produce a tie strip attached to the bag. Consumers would only have to pull on the tie and wrap it around the bag’s neck. He was going to lease these jaws to the big manufacturers for a royalty stream and I was in on the ground floor of this soon-to-be skyscraper.

On the side, this guy said he was part of a great inventor’s consortium at a Prestigious Technology Institute and claimed to have discovered evidence that the U.S. military was giving nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union to fuel the arms race. I signed up to help with that project too. Together we were not merely going to make millions, we were going to save the world. 

While working on my senior project on his arms race conspiracy theory I started to lose faith. His story didn’t hold together. I organized a meeting of senior peace activists at which my entrepreneur friend promised he would finally reveal his evidence. The meeting was an embarrassment. He mumbled through the same preamble he had been giving me all along.

Senior year was almost over. I feared I was getting in on the ground floor of a basement. By the time college ended, the entrepreneur had yet to license the jaws. I abandoned both of his ventures and took work elsewhere, less prepared than my fellows. 

One night after graduation I got a call from the entrepreneur. I had company in the other room. I remember standing in my home office, the lights off. No need to turn them on, because I was going to keep this call short.

“I’ve got a new idea that will make us millions!” 

“Right,” I said impatiently, “and what is it?”

“See, the reason the bag venture didn’t take off is that no one saw the product in action.”

“No,” I said. “The reason it didn’t take off is that no one ties anything anymore. Ziploc has a better way to close a bag.’’ 

Ignoring me, he went on, “See, I realized I have to make a product that will go in the bag. That way, I’ll be able to sell the tie strip concept by proving how useful the tie is. And now I’ve got a product to sell! Cheese-flavored popcorn! I’m going to make the product stand out on the shelf in a distinctive bag. I know this amateur artist who will draw a really simple image for the package so people will think it’s not a slick product. Are you in or are you in?”

Before, this guy’s enthusiasm had been infectious. Now that I’d lost faith, it was toxic. Our magnetic poles had reversed. The more enthusiasm he showed, the more repelled I was. 

I had deferred to him too long. I was going to make up for lost time by giving him my honest opinion. 

“It’s a stupid idea,” I said. “You have to face it. The tie isn’t ever going to sell. And there’s no product I can think of that needs a re-sealable bag less than cheese-flavored popcorn. That stuff will be inhaled in one sitting.”

I was on a natural food kick at the time. I suggested that he consider making organic, teriyaki-flavored popcorn. 

“So you don’t want to join me?” he asked. 

“Nope, sorry,” I said. “But good luck.”

I was right about the ties. Ziploc won out over hand-tying. 

I was wrong about the popcorn. Four years later, he sold it to a multinational food company for close to $15 million.

Jeremy Sherman ’91 MPP ’95 teaches social sciences at local colleges, collaborates with UC anthropologist Terrence Deacon, writes a Psychology Today blog called “Ambigamy: Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical,” is author of Negotiate with Yourself and Win! Doubt Management for People Who Can Hear Themselves Think, and plays bass and sings in jazz trios at Berkeley restaurants three nights a week. He loves popcorn.

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