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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Corsair Interview: Josh Harris

Remember Josh Harris, the internet entrepeneur/ performance artist? It is not inconceivable that Josh Harris, one of the founders of Jupiter Communications, was very much ahead of the curve. Josh also founded Pseudo, a company -- which he now calls performance art -- that threw the best parties in the 1990s (a significant achievement, to be sure). Pseudo can only be properly construed as a digital equivalent circa the late 90s and turn of the millennium, of Andy Warhol's Factory. In both instances, everything was caught on camera.

In retrospect, Josh's obsession with digital self-chronicling anticipated Webs 2.0 and 3.0. I interviewed Josh, an acquaintance, a while ago via email. As the documentary on him -- by Ondi Timoner -- won a Sundance award, and opens at the IFC Center tomorrow, I thought now was as good a time as any to dust it off. At the time of the interview Josh was head of Operator 11, a Hollywood-based startup. Now, curiously, Josh's most recent venture was running an entertainment company in Sidamo, Ethiopia.

Josh Harris, a Silicon Alley dot-bomb survivor, is quite a character. Literally. In a previous incarnation, he was “Luvvy,” his alter-ego in clown makeup (I am not kidding about this). And previous to that, Josh was CEO of Pseudo Programs, Inc., which, at the time, was the largest producer of original Internet TV content. At the turn of the century Harris was a 38-year old full of hubris seeking to take And Warhol one step further. Josh Harris told CBS News correspondent Bob Simon in an infamous “60 Minutes” telecast on the irrational exuberance of the Alley, “Our business model is to take you guys out of business … I'm in a race to take CBS out of business. That's my focus. That's what my bankers are telling me to do. The race is on. We're in the hunt and we're out to get you guys." Howard Stern – then at Viacom -- and even CBS had shown some initial interest, “Howard and Mel (Karmazin) looked at us,” Josh emailed me. “Howard claimed Pseudo's asking price was too high. Mel did not want to invest in the future. We didn't smell right to two seasoned professionals.” (Ironically, Stern may just end up online after his Sirius-XM contract expires in 2010) And then, all at once, the dotcom flameout engulfed Pseudo and the party was over. Harris took it in stride: “In February 2001 I left New York City. I farmed apples in Livingston, NY until 2004 … Sold the Farm. Lived in various hotel rooms in Madrid for one year. Began development on Operator11 with a Spanish Count (unmonied but a major shareholder in Operator11) and the deflowered Belgian nun he pulled from a convent. “Had the choice of joining the Madrid television mafia or moving to Hollywood.”

Or living in Ethiopia.

We Live in Public, which chronicles Josh's obsession with self-chronicling opens in limited engagement on August 28.

1 comment:

Gonzalo Martín said...

I arrived here by chance. It's been so long since you posted this, that probably this wouldn't matter anymore.

Well, the thing is that researching for a keynote I'm about to perform, I got here. Privacy and other problems of the cyberspace, in case you ask. And the thing is as well that I was there, with the Spanish Count and the alleged deflowered Belgian nun and a few others.

Joining the "Madrid television mafia" never was the issue. Harris quit Madrid operation because he din not understood the language and the business culture even though he promised to speak Spanish in less than three months. It didn't happen.

Instead, the guy had some paranoia attacks because the Spanish partners (a.k.a "the Spaniards" pronounced with that tone..), including "the unmonied Count", spoke in Spanish while trying to implement a reasonable strategy for our market. Potential investors had a serious difficulty in understanding the business model and the project. He also asked for more money than he/we could actually ask for a powerpoint presentation.

Why Madrid and not Hollywood? Well, Operator 11's failure has the answer. Venture capitalists did not trust in Harris' ability to take care for their money. So, he flew away when he learned that things in Madrid didn't go as fast as in the Valley or Los Angeles for an internet start-up and rather than starting over in Madrid he decided to break his promises and settle down in L.A.

He actually was very worried about his past. He insisted on being open to the investors and show them those things he did, the famous parties of "We live in Public" and the Luvvy performances. I don't know if he ever understood that Spanish investors did not give a damn for some footage of naked people in a N.Y. loft.

Of course, other paranoias and personal obsessions were around. If you watch the excellent documentary on his life, and remember the videotape in which he says byebye to his dead mother, I'm pretty sure you can figure out the difficulty to make "Chatstar" happen - this was the Madrid project name, before O11 was released in LA.

So, thanks for your time.