Read an Excerpt
Early December, nearly forty years ago
Jack Sullivan needed a Christmas miracle.
"There's no question that the Pocket Planner is a great and cutting-edge product. That's why we agreed to manufacture thousands of units in anticipation of big Christmas orders," Allen Walter explained. The distinguished gray-haired man who had founded Walter Industries held Jack's invention in his hand. "Unfortunately," Allen said as he put it on the table and slid it a couple of inches away, "our sales reps have all reported in to let us know that their accounts are far more interested in ordering toys like the Pet Rock and posters of sex symbols such as Jacqueline Bisset for the holiday sales rush. My company has already lost a great deal of money on several great products this year. What we need to sell this Christmas is a sure thing, so we're going to have to cut our losses now. I'm afraid this is the end of the road for the Pocket Planner."
Ten years ago, Jack had just begun the PhD program in electrical engineering at Stanford University when he'd woken up in the middle of the night with a crystal clear vision of a portable electronic device that would help people keep track of their appointments and to-do lists. His colleagues had thought he was crazy at first, but he'd held on to that vision with unwavering focus. By the time he graduated with his doctorate, three of his fellow PhD candidates had joined his quest to develop the Pocket Planner.
In classic Silicon Valley style, Jack, Howie Miller, Larry Buelton and James Sperring had left the campus labs and set up shop in the garage of a house Jack was renting on a suburban Palo Alto street. James married a year later and left the group to take a steady job with a paycheck. But Larry and Howard had stuck with Jack through hundreds of cold slices of pizza and cups of coffee while they sweated it out over their computers and calculators. They'd had plenty of failures and had made endless mistakes over the years, but there'd been enough successalong with part-time engineering jobs to keep the bills paidto continue moving forward with their plan.
This morning, when the three of them had put on suits and ties to come to this meeting with Allen Walter, they'd assumed he had great news to share with them about how things were shaping up for their big holiday product launch. Walter Industries had been one of the early investors in Hewlett-Packard and, as far as Jack was concerned, they were the only partner he would have trusted with his baby. It had been a thrill when Allen's company had signed on earlier in the year to manufacture and distribute the Pocket Planner to retailers this Christmas.
Jack had worked too long and hard to let Allen and Walter Industries pull the plug. Even if several other new products had underperformed this year, he knew his wouldn't. Fortunately, he'd done extensive research and he knew exactly what had underperformed and why.
"The Factomatic doesn't appeal to a broad enough market," Jack said. "And the Playerphone is too similar to the Stylophone. But our Pocket Planner isn't just a gadget for men to get their tech fix with. Women will love using it, too, because it will make their busy lives easier. Even kids can use it to keep track of homework and after-school games." Jack remembered how busy his mother had been raising four boys while putting in part-time hours at the school district office. She would have loved having his invention at her disposal to keep track of household purchases and school schedules. His father would have used it to track his favorite sports teams and investments.
"I don't doubt that you're right, Jack," Allen agreed. "The problem isn't whether or not people will enjoy using your invention. I'm sure they would. The issue is getting the retailers to stock it in the first place. Between rising inflation and slowing economic growth, we're finding it more and more difficult to get stores to give a new product a chance. They truly have to believe that people will want to part with their hard-earned dollars to buy it."
Jack could see his partners, Larry and Howie, deflating more and more with every word out of the chairman's mouth. But it would take a heck of a lot more than a couple of lukewarm sentences to make a Sullivan give up.
"We appreciate your concerns, Allen, and would like to come back in twenty-four hours with a marketing and publicity plan that will convince you that our invention can be extremely profitable for your retailers."
Howie shot Jack a look that he could read without needing to hear him speak aloud: Why are you volunteering to come up with a marketing plan? We're engineers, not PR people.
Larry's expression was even easier to read: it's over.
Allen shook his head. "I admire the work you've put into this, Jack, but times have changedtoo fast, if you ask me. People aren't interested in wholesome or helpful anymore." He picked up the Pocket Planner again. "Tell you whatif you can figure out a way to give this device sex appeal we may be able to continue the conversation."
Jack could have easily proved its usefulness. And he could have definitely detailed its time-saving benefits.
But sex appeal?
Even Jack knew when he was staring straight into a dead end.
Still, he'd bought them twenty-four hours. Now it was time to use those hours to make absolutely sure he and his two partners came up with something big enough, reassuring enough, and "sexy" enough, that the retailers couldn't say no.
Careful not to let his doubts show, Jack stood up to shake hands with Allen and the other board members. Then the clock began to tick.
In silence Jack and his two partners took the elevator down from the twentieth floor to the lobby. None of them said a word until they'd stepped out of the large glass doors and onto the sidewalk. Ten in the morning was a busy time of day in San Francisco's Financial District and they had to speak loudly to be heard over the noise of the traffic and the suited businessmen and women rushing around them.
"How are we supposed to give the Pocket Planner sex appeal?" Howie asked, clearly frustrated.
"If we could have gotten it out two years ago, before the economy started to tank, the retailers would have taken it on without blinking." Larry's mouth was turned down at the corners as he spoke. He was a genius, but more than once he'd reminded Jack of Eeyore, the morose donkey from the children's books his mother had read to him when he was a young boy. "But now? It will take a miracle to convince them to stock it."
Howie was the realist. Larry was the pessimist. And Jack was the energy that kept their inventive and brilliant motors running, no matter what.
"The three of us are going to grab a cup of coffee and start brainstorming."
They'd been planning to pop open champagne right now, not down more java. Jack pushed the thought away to focus on the problem at hand: making their device "sexy," not only for men, but for women, too.
Of all the problems Jack had faced over the past decade, worrying about sex hadn't been one of them. He had a great appreciation for women. He liked to watch them move, liked to feel them soft and warm beneath him and enjoyed the way their minds worked. And yet, just as eating and sleeping had always played second fiddle to his work, so had women and sex.
Larry sighed as they got off the trolley and rounded the corner into Union Square, which was fully decorated with lights in every store window and huge green wreaths hung from the lampposts. "If we can't convince the retailers to carry our product this Christmas, we'll officially be out of money. And I'm getting too old to keep living on the edge of completely broke like this, guys."
Howie gestured toward the center of Union Square, where there was a portable trailer on the corner. Several large lighting rigs had been set up around the area to shine down on the snow that had been brought in for the scene. Flakes of fresh snow fell from another rig positioned above the brightly lit stage.
"Imagine having the funds to put something like this together to sell our invention."
Their usual coffee place was just ahead but, instead of heading inside, Jack detoured toward the crosswalk.
"Where are you going?" Howie asked.
"To take a closer look."
Larry was right. They'd need a miracle in the next twenty-four hours to keep their dream alive. Jack knew it wouldn't be the end of the world if they didn't make this deal. He'd easily be able to get a job working for one of the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. But he'd never wanted to work for anyone else. And just as this snowy scene in the middle of San Francisco had been some director's impossible vision, Jack wanted to see his own impossible vision come to life, too.
A sixth sense had him moving quickly toward the Union Square set. He didn't know exactly what he was going to learn by watching the filming of a movie or commercial. It was just that today he needed to witness fantasy become reality.
Turning up the collars of their suit jackets, and shoving their hands deep into their pockets to try to keep warm against the strong Bay breeze that whipped between the tall buildings, the three men crossed at a busy corner. They had just stepped up onto the sidewalk when the door to the trailer opened.
And the most beautiful woman in the world stepped out.
Jack stopped so suddenly that Howie and Larry both barreled hard into his back and a car rounding the corner nearly knocked them down.
Glossy, straight dark brown hair moved over shoulders covered in red velvet. Soft fabric clung to a perfect hourglass figure and swirled seductively around an incredible pair of legs, made even sleeker by extremely high heels. Long, elegant fingers were painted red to match the dress and the full lips that were curving up into a smile.
The woman on the Union Square set wasn't only the most beautiful woman Jack had ever seen, she was also the most vibrant. As she took her place on set beneath the lights the photographer began taking pictures of her. Though Jack didn't know what it was she was selling, he wanted it anyway.
He wanted her, too.
"My girlfriend is never going to believe it when I tell her I saw Mary Ferrer live and in the flesh." Howie's expression was starstruck.
Larry's eyebrows went up. "You know her name?"
"She's on the covers of a bunch of magazines Layla has lying around in the living room. Hard to believe it, but Mary Ferrer is actually better looking in person."
Men, women and kids of all ages stopped what they were doing in the middle of downtown San Francisco to watch the beautiful model pose for pictures. As she smiled, flirted and laughed for the camera, she was sexy without being too sexy, sweet without being too sweet.
A little girl broke free from her mother's hand and barreled onto the set with a squeal of joy. The model scooped the girl up into her arms with a laugh and the two of them chatted cheerfully until her mother rushed up to take her daughter back. Jack couldn't hear what they were saying, but he could see that Mary was waving away the woman's apologies without a second thought.
That was when something inside Jack's chest twisted tight
and he immediately knew why.
"She's the answer to our problems."
But what he felt when he looked at the beautiful stranger didn't just come from thinking she could be the perfect spokesperson for their invention. Jack was a scientist who believed in what he could prove with numbers and calculations and wires and chips hooked together. At the same time, he'd been following a dream long enough to understand that passion lay beneath it all.
Suddenly he had to ask himself, was love at first sight actually possible?
Larry and Howie had turned to stare at him as if he'd lost his mind. "How on earth could that gorgeous creature have anything to do with our problems?"
"Our device needs sex appeal. She's got plenty of that. But we also need someone to represent it who will appeal to the broadest possible market." He could see it all so clearly, just as clear as his first vision had been ten years ago. They would need both still shots and live commercials of her holding the Pocket Planner. Because people wouldn't be able to take their eyes off her, they also wouldn't miss the product she was selling. He gestured at the large crowd of men and women, boys and girls of all ages. "Everyone is clearly mesmerized. Even two-year-olds can't resist her."
"Okay," Howie said slowly, "you're making some good points. But how are you going to convince Mary Ferrer to work with us? Especially since she has to be one of the most expensive models in the world and our budget at this point barely covers our coffee."
"Don't worry," Jack said. "I'll convince her."
Howie and Larry looked at each other with raised eyebrows, but neither of them expressed another doubt. Both of them knew that when Jack Sullivan decided to make something happen, it always did.