Beautiful people, bright lights, free-flowing drinks, glitzy performers-the latest Hollywood premiere? Not exactly. At least something seems different, as evidenced by the big screen above the crowds, where you might expect to see Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow or the latest Santana video. Instead, it glows with a different kind of debutant, the newest Web star wannabe hoping to stake its place on the dotcom landscape.
Welcome to the Internet launch party, a phenomenon that has fast become modus operandi for venture-capital-infused Web start-ups from coast to coast. It's an event where left brain meets right, as conservative engineer types in company logo shirts and investors in pin stripes hobnob with flamboyant artists in sequins and pearls. All are gathered here with one goal in mind: to put this start-up on the radar screen and transform a simple URL into the "it" site of the year.
"In San Francisco, you're not part of the culture unless you have a launch party," says 32-year-old John Bracken, co-founder of Evite.com Inc., a site that creates online invitations. "In fact, it's competitive now. People say 'We have to do it better than the other guy.' It generates word-of-mouth, and people are always looking forward to the next party."
Evite.com knows all about shelling out big bucks for a launch party. The 3-year-old San Francisco company dropped $70,000 on its launch bash last year, an event that attracted more than 700 guests. Bracken says it was money well spent. "It was the perfect marketing vehicle for a company like ours because we're all about throwing parties," he says.
While a party may be a no-brainer for an invitation site, Web companies with all kinds of business models, from click-and-mortar product sites to online directories, are getting in on the act. In fact, throwing a big bash to announce one's "arrival" and to celebrate other major events in a site's lifecycle has almost become expected in Internet circles.
Once considered the domain of big Hollywood studios, today's large, lavish parties are the work of burgeoning dotcoms hoping to generate the buzz that will send an impressive volume of traffic careening toward their pages. With more and more invitations hitting e-mail servers every day, the events have become firmly embedded in the cultural fabric of major tech centers. "The goal is to put a very important public stake in the ground for the dotcom," says consultant Murem Sharpe, whose Bloomfield Hills, Minnesota, firm, 24x2, helps Internet start-ups shape their business strategies.
That stake can be quite expensive, usually ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, says Sharpe. Not to say there's a limit: The bill for a recent San Francisco launch gala exceeded $200,000, a fee that covered everything from champagne to circus performers.
"The head count will be at least 200 to 300 people, and the food alone will be $50 to $100 a head," says Sharpe. Most companies overdo it with refreshments, she adds, and skimp on the good giveaways, like T-shirts, hats and other tchotchkes with the company logo. "That's where many companies fall down on the job-they spend a lot on the food but don't bother to spend a little more on the giveaways that will solidify the brand."