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Where Are They Now? Dot-Com CEOs

Much has been written about the iconic American brands that have recently left the corporate landscape. Names like the bankrupt Circuit City and the nowhere-to-be-found Pontiac are casualties of the Great Recession, and there are most likely more to come. But every downturn means the end of the road for certain companies. Just a few years ago, brands like Kozmo, Flooz and Pets.com were going to change the way we all shop. So what happened to the CEOs of those dot-com casualties? We caught up with a few of them.

1. Jared Polis: BlueMountainArts.com

Artist Stephen Schutz and poet Susan Polis Schutz had been running greeting card company Blue Mountain Arts for several decades before their son took the business online and co-founded bluemountainarts.com. But Jared really caught the attention of the e-business world when he sold the company to Excite@Home in a deal worth $780 million. (Later, Excite sold the company for $200 million.) In 1998, he launched ProFlowers.com, a web company selling flowers direct from growers to consumers, which expanded to become Provide Commerce, which was then acquired by Liberty Media Corporation. In 2006, he founded Techstars, a seed incubator for web startups, and in November 2008, Mr. Polis was elected to the United States Congress to represent the second Congressional district of Colorado. Today, Fortune estimates his personal wealth at $160 million.

2. Joseph Park and Yong Kang: Kozmo.com

Remember when you could get a pint of Cherry Garcia, a Snickers and the New York Times delivered at 2:00am? Those were the days. And that's also the reason Kozmo is no more. The company's unsustainable business model promised free delivery of anything, in under an hour. And they lost money on every delivery. The two founders, Joseph Park and Yong Kang, took different paths after they closed shop. Park went to Harvard Business School and is now running Askville, a community site operated by Amazon.com. As for Yong Kang, he returned to Wall Street, and as of May 2008 listed his occupation as investment banking at Lehman Brothers. Rough decade.

3. Greg McLemore: Pets.com

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Before the dot-com bubble burst, there were about a half-dozen pet supply sites on the web, all getting ridiculous amounts of venture capital money (that should've been our first clue). After Pets.com went bankrupt in 2000, CEO Greg McLemore went on to create other start-ups. According to his LinkedIn page, he started stock footage company eFootage in 2003 and DataRefinery (a company developing a set of web based software tools) in 2006. He also hopes to sleep sometime around 2012, but that's subject to change.

4. Ernst Malmsten and Kajsa Leander: Boo.com

Boo.com was the brainchild of Ernst Malmsten, a poetry critic, and Kajsa Leander, a former Vogue model, who grew up together in Sweden. In the 90s, they wanted to create a website where the most fashionable people would buy their clothes, and before they had sold a single item, Fortune magazine had christened them "one of Europe's coolest companies." After the highly publicized launch, it took all of 18 months for the company to burn through $135 million in venture capital before closing down in May of 2000. Now, Kajsa Leander lives in Venice with her husband, raising their three children, and Ernst Malmsten runs a London-based agency that represents architects, fashion designers, graphic designers and other creative types. He also wrote a book about the experience called Boo Hoo: a Dot.com Story. As for Boo.com, it's now a travel website with user-generated reviews...no sign of Miss Boo anywhere, though.

5. Robert Levitan: Flooz.com

flooz.jpgFlooz was the Whoppi Goldberg-promoted site that offered redeemable credits when consumers purchased specific products. A lack of interest and a little fraud (apparently, parties within the Russian mafia were using Flooz as a money laundering vehicle) forced the company to shut down in 2001. As for the CEO, Robert Levitan (who had previously founded iVillage) went on to create Yearlook Enterprises and Pando Networks, a company that provides peer-assisted content delivery. These dot-com guys are quite the overachievers, aren't they?

6. Josh Harris: Pseudo.com

Josh Harris was one of the most interesting characters of the web 1.0 days. The founder of both Jupiter Communications and Pseudo.com (a live audio and video webcasting website), Harris became notorious for his six-month, $600,000 project "We Live In Public," a Big Brother type concept in which he placed more than 100 artists in a New York City human terrarium, capturing every move the artists made. After Pseudo.com filed for bankruptcy in 2000, Harris literally bought the farm: a 153-acre apple orchard in New York, which he sold in 2006. These days, Mr. Harris is the CEO of the African Entertainment Network based in Sidamo, Ethiopia. I'm sure he's capturing the entire experience on video.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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