Paris, By Way of Hell

In the late 1990’s I was working as a Director of Technical Marketing for “SmartyPants,” (aka “SmartPatents”) a Silicon Valley startup that developed software for companies performing competitive intelligence by analyzing rivals’ US patent applications. It was an intellectually interesting product, but not particularly karmically rewarding.

One day the VP of Marketing apologetically asked me if I’d be willing to fly to Paris on Sunday (it was Wednesday) to do a high profile demo. It would be a joint meeting with representatives from the consulting arm of one of the Big Six accounting firms. Inside, I was doing a happy dance. Outside, I frowned, paused, and said, “Well, I’ll have to ask Joy if it’s okay and make sure it doesn’t mess up our plans.”

My boss apologized for the short notice and then sweetened the deal by saying, “Because you’ll be flying to Paris the day before the demo, we’ll fly you business class.” I’d never flown business class. This gig was getting better all the time!

“Let me check with Joy and I’ll get back to you right away,” I said in a serious tone.

I walked into a conference room and called Joy. “Hey, Smartypants is going to fly me to Paris on Sunday and I’m going business class!” As I expected, Joy was excited for me.

I told my boss I was a “Go” and then headed straight over to our tech guy who was in charge of building our demo environments.

“I need the latest version of our demo environment set up on the demo laptop. I only need the specific 350 patents for this company loaded into the database. When can you have it for me?”

“Well,” he said, “just giving you those 350 patents will take a couple of hours, but I’d really like to give you a full demo database with all the available US patents so you can do a richer demo. That will take over night.”

“I really just need the customer’s patents,” I said. “But if it’s just going to run over night, then that’s no big deal. I’ll just pick it up tomorrow morning.”

Thursday morning I walked into the tech’s office. “I’m here to pick up the demo laptop.”

“Well,” he said, staring at his toes, “we ran into a slight problem. The data load crashed so I have to start over. I should have it to you by the end of the day.”

“Can’t you just give me the 350 patents?”

“Really, the full data load should be done by the time you’re ready to go home.”

Being stupid, I said I’d come back at the end of the day and headed to my desk to prepare the customer-specific presentation for the Paris demo.

Later that day I was asked to meet with another potential consulting partner. Part way through the presentation there was a knock on the door and the company’s chief financial officer stuck his head in.

“Tony, can I speak to you for a sec?” Interrupting a meeting like this was extraordinarily unusual. Wondering why in the world the CFO would want to talk to me, I stepped out of the room.

“Look, Tony, I know we said we’d send you to Paris in business class, but it turns out that buying a last minute ticket will cost over $10,000. We really can’t afford to send you business class.” Even today $10,000 is a ridiculous amount to spend on a ticket. In the late 90’s, for a startup, it was a crazy amount.

“That’s okay, I totally understand,” I said. I was disappointed but hardly upset. I was still going to Paris!

“That’s really great and we want to make it up to you. It turns out that business class is so expensive that even paying for two coach tickets is much less than half the cost. If you’d like to take your wife along, we’ll pay for her ticket, too.”

Now I was really doing an internal happy dance!

When I finished my meeting I called Joy. “Hey. So, you know how I’m supposed to fly to Paris on Sunday? Want to come to Paris with me on SmartyPants’ nickel? Oh, and by the way, I was just looking at the calendar, and that Wednesday is Valentine’s Day.”

Joy paused. “That would be wonderful. Let me see if I can make the timing work,” she said. A few minutes after we hung up, Joy wrote a great email to her colleagues. “Sorry for the short notice, but I won’t be in at work next week. My husband is taking me to Paris for Valentine’s Day.”

The end of the day rolled around and I went to pick up the demo laptop. The load was still crashing. Now I was actively pissed and panicky. The tech absolutely, positively promised it would be ready Friday morning. At the end of the day Friday I was having a hissy fit. He had even tried loading just the 350 patents and it was still failing. I went in search of management. Not a single one of those fuckers was around on a Friday afternoon, but I did send them the grumpiest business email I’d ever written. I got management assurances via email that this was highest priority.

The tech and I exchanged cell numbers so we could check in over the weekend. Still broken Saturday morning. Still broken Saturday afternoon.

Saturday evening my conversation with the tech was short. “I am on a 9:00am flight to Paris Sunday morning. The laptop better meet me at the San Francisco airport before I get on the plane.”

I began emotionally preparing myself for the likelihood I’d have to “demo” our product using PowerPoint slides.

Joy and I were standing in line waiting to check in for the flight when the tech sprinted toward me, carrying the laptop. Success at last! Three minutes later the United Airlines desk agent was asking me, “Has anyone given you anything to carry onto the plane?” Joy and I glanced at each other for a moment before I smiled at the agent and lied.

Fast forward about 13 hours and Joy and I are walking into our Paris hotel room. The very first thing I did, even before unpacking, is fire up the demo laptop to see what data I ended up with. And, of course, our virtual server application wouldn’t start correctly. After spending about 30 minutes debugging it, I realized that the tech forgot to install some server software components. I sent what is without a doubt the most-ever seething email I wrote in my career. I almost immediately got back an email saying that one of the Big Six consultants who would be attending the demo was just about to get on a red eye to Paris and our company execs were arranging to give him a CD with the missing software.

I later learned that our administrative assistant talked her way through two airport security checkpoints in order to hand the CD to a person she’d never met. (It was still possible to do that kind of thing in 1998.)

A totally wretched night’s sleep later, I was sitting in the potential customer’s lobby with three senior consultants from our partner firm. We were all praying that the plane wasn’t delayed. About 15 minutes before our meeting was scheduled to begin, their colleague, carrying the CD, walked into the lobby. I think none of us breathed while I re-installed our server software and successfully fired up the demo. It’s been more than twenty years since this incident and I’m still not sure whether I was pleased or pissed to see the database populated with the whole damn set of all patents.

The actual demo went great, but not so great that the French company bought our software, but that had more to do with our product’s weaknesses than my demo skills. (Not surprisingly, Smartypants is long-defunct.)

Joy and I spent three more lovely days in Paris and on Valentine’s Day we drank champagne and kissed while looking at the Eiffel Tower. While strolling along the Left Bank we also bought one of our favorite pieces of art, by the artist: François Sasmayoux.

Francois Sasmayoux painting in our livingroom

Not too bad a business trip to Paris, after all!

2 thoughts on “Paris, By Way of Hell

  1. Reminds me of several failures of important demonstrations I had in Stanford conferences . Some things never change but the technologists still promise but the demos never succeed fully! Great story —glad the trip was successful in most important manners 🧜‍♂️😂


  2. I, of course, noticed that painting and a wondered about it. Didn’t ask as you had so many new (to me) pieces…nice to hear background!


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