Schmooze It or Lose It

The tech boom has South Florida's Internet pioneers and newcomers in a state of rabid networking

Francisco Diaz is smiling mischievously as he winds his way between several dozen men and women dressed in business suits, who have jammed into a banquet room at the Fontainebleau Hilton on Miami Beach. It is a Thursday evening, and for the past two hours the guests have been milling around a buffet table, enjoying free liquor from a portable bar in the corner. Elegantly clad in black sport jacket and ponytail, Diaz has been spreading a dirty little secret.

As the gathering swells into an extended happy hour, people are flipping business cards back and forth nearly as furiously as casino blackjack dealers. While guests digest pieces of delicious baked lasagna, talk ranges from Web design to audio downloading to video streaming. "Pornography is 59 percent of the Internet right now," Diaz tells a group of fellow dot.schmoozers. Diaz, who operates a Website design company in Fort Lauderdale, says he has helped several clients set up such sites. Not only do pornographers dominate the Web, he insists, they are responsible for financing important technological advances such as video streaming, which we all will take for granted one day. "The porn sites are about the only ones making any serious money on the Internet, and they are investing it in the technology," he explains. Not everyone concurs with the 59 percent estimate. "Bullshit," says Web producer Skip Brickley, when presented with Diaz's assertion. To bolster his opinion, Brickley introduces his partner Jonathan Yarmis to New Times. "Tell him about porn on the Internet," Brickley says to Yarmis before walking off. When presented with the 59 percent porn figure, Yarmis weakly confirms it. "Well, that's probably about right," he says.

Brickley would rather talk about horizontal and vertical markets. He is CEO of eMarketWorld, a Richmond, Virginia-based company gearing up to orchestrate conferences and trade shows on the Internet. Participants will attend via computer, he says. His clients will be wired executives rather than the masses of the World Wide Web.

This is no ordinary happy hour. It is a new kind of social event linked to a gold-rush mentality that has swept into South Florida, propelled by predictions of the Latin American Internet market's imminent growth. Local marketing geniuses once used the term "Silicon Beach" to describe the area, but upon reflection have settled on the name Internet Coast. Many of those at the Fontainebleau on this day have been attending similar events for the past several months, rubbing elbows and enjoying free drinks with people they normally wouldn't be caught in the same chat room with.

Even bigger Interfetes have been taking place at the Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables on the first Tuesday of every month. Public-relations man Seth Gordon, managing partner of GDB + Partners, originated those sessions. Gordon's dot.schmoozers have flown in from points all over the nation, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. The crowds have included Website designers, Website owners, investment bankers, advertisers, and retailers. Representatives of multinational corporations such as Sony, IBM, and Lucent Technologies also have attended. As word has spread, lawyers, doctors, and even realtors have begun to show up, offering their services to start-up companies.

Put a lot of people in a big room with free liquor and soon the boundaries between business and pleasure blur. "This one big meat market," shrieked a female lawyer as she stood near the entrance and surveyed more than 100 people socializing high-tech style at one of Gordon's recent Colonnade gatherings. Nearby two men in suits inspected notes and business cards pinned to a bulletin board -- a networking tool -- set up for the evening. One of them confessed to another that he was having an electronic romance. "I only know her by telephone voice and e-mail," he confided. "For some time now."

As the temperature rose, Todd Rice, who hails from Chicago, was wondering why he decided to wear his heavy gray herringbone suit coat in the Miami heat. Then he added that there are no such bashes in the Windy City. He suspects this is because Chitown dwellers are afraid others will steal their good Internet ideas. The Magic City is a new frontier. "The Latin-American market is wide open," he reasoned. "So there's not so much fear of competitors keeping you from attaining your own business."

After a couple of hours, Glenn Ruggiero and Brett Cramer were socially saturated, but still quietly observing the horde. Ruggiero, who had flown in from Atlanta, where his employer, Intervu, a digital video firm, is based, recapped his evening this way. "I met a headhunter, some hardware people, some software people." Then Ruggiero notices the name tags of some power-suited investment bankers a few paces away. Cramer, who wears a goatee, blue jeans, and a green shirt, just shrugs. He founded TvTaxi.com, which offered on-demand digital video five years ago, before the e-rush. Cramer applies a familiar South Florida metaphor to this evening's frenzy. "It's like a bunch of sharks swimming around, and then you throw chum into the water," he says. Some people come just because it is fashionable. "They all want to be part of this thing, but they're not sure what it is," Cramer says.

Nearby Duane MacPhail was raving about his cutting-edge Website, which offers commodities that, for many South Floridians at least, are as important as sex: boat parts. Even MacPhail has caught the World Wide bug. The day after the meeting he dashed out an e-mail message to New Times. "It was good to talk to you last night at the first-Tuesday meeting. We feel our Website, marineparts.com, represents many of the dynamic things happening in Florida today. Our 'clicks to bricks' evolution is truly unique in today's business environment."

On the Internet Coast, fantasy and reality often meld. Back at the Fontainebleau, a euphoric Ronald Kronen stood in a circle of prospective clients who were equally high on the Internet. "I say it's all starting right here," he declared. "We're some of the innovators of the backbone of the industry here." Then he noticed a tall blond woman approach, and changed his tune. "Wow, she's pretty."

She is Heather Storm, president of Mundo Nuevo, which operates a Website (www.mundonuevo.com) that plays Latin music on personal computers. "We're looking to create strategic alliances," Storm says. In other words she and Gregory Alexander (her husband and the company's CEO) want to get their Website on the home pages of major music companies. The couple drove down from West Palm Beach just to strategically mingle.

Despite all the high-tech hoopla, Anamaria Manzano was sticking to a one-on-one, evangelical sales approach that worked just fine before the Internet came along. She was attempting to proselytize people into forking over $20 per month for prepaid legal services. "What if someone sues you?" she said, pointing a finger at New Times's chest as she joined us at a cocktail table on the side of the banquet room. (Legal assistance and peace of mind are just a phone call away. Affordable, quality legal protection for just pennies a day! And it's only because she cares about you.)

Other strange behavior has been sighted at the sessions. Chatting near the buffet table in a suit and tie, Glenn Harris remembered one odd participant at the Colonnade Internet happy hour. "This guy collected a big stack of business cards," recalls Harris, an advertising manager at El Sitio.com, a Spanish-language portal (which means a site created to provide access to other sites). "He had been going around telling people he worked for some kind of Internet company. And then on his way out he said to me: 'Here, do you want them?' It was bizarre."

As the Fontainebleau cocktail party thinned out, Diaz got down to brass tacks: He could hook up New Times with a gizmo that processes credit cards on the Website. We'll need that to get our porn business going. But Diaz knows the porn industry isn't for every eager e-entrepreneur. He also can arrange an offshore bank account, he says, to help us set up a cyber casino.

kirk.nielsen@miaminewtimes.com

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