Columns

There’s no laugh like it

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 18 2000
Columns

There’s no laugh like it

Anthony Wilson-Smith December 18 2000

There’s no laugh like it

Columns

Anthony Wilson-Smith

When he contemplated his pending 40th birthday last fall, Garner Bornstein didn’t mess around. He called up four couples who are friends of his and his wife, Jane, and asked if they could take time off from their everyday lives sometime soon. Then he booked and paid for 10 business-class return tickets between his home base in Montreal and Greece. There, the five couples proceeded to a yacht Bornstein rented, with crew, and spent a week sailing the Aegean Sea. The experience was, says his friend and business partner Andy Nulman, “something you read about in books or see in movies, but never expect to experience yourself.”

Actually, Bornstein’s 40th birthday is in January—but he’s always been ahead of the curve. The most obvious example these days is Airborne Entertainment, the wireless entertainment content provider that he and Nulman first started thinking about more than a year ago. If you have a cellphone or wireless device offered by any of Canada’s major service providers—such as Bell Mobility, Rogers AT&T, Fido or Clearnet—you may be familiar with The Funniest, their humour entertainment channel that, for a fee, delivers a daily round of jokes to subscribers. By the second half of2001, Airborne will be offering four new channels with topics ranging from short serialized fiction to interactive games. They have a distribution deal with Sprint in the United States, and expect to put deals in place over the next 18 months in Europe and Latin America. Last month, Montreal gazillionaire Charles Sirois brought in his holding company, Telesystem Ltd., as a partner. Soon, they expect to close the last deals meeting the $ 15-million target in start-up funding that they set for themselves a year ago. That’s no surprise to Dean MacDonald, the Newfoundland-based cable entrepreneur who gave them their first seed money of $1.5 million—a month after the tech meltdown in the stock market last spring. MacDonald invested after what he cheerfully describes as “the shortest, most superficial exercise of due diligence ever.” More seriously, he says: “You get a great idea, and great people, and you don’t care about the market.”

Well-spoken, perpetually calm, and deceptively low-key, Bornstein has a track record of gaining people’s trust in short order—and making them very glad over the longer term that he did. He put himself through CEGEP by selling vacuum cleaners—and made enough extra money to pay for his first new car and take a trip to Europe. After a commerce degree from McGill University, he spent eight years as director of operations for a real estate management firm. When the Montreal real estate scene turned ugly in pre-referendum 1994, he began mulling a career change. A friend’s father, Norman Spector, who operated a heating-oil business in Montreal,

told Bornstein to “find a business and I’ll back you.” So Bornstein, who had learned computer programming in university, went to a tech show in California to hunt for ideas.

By his return, he had decided to start a company that would provide Internet hookup and service—just as use of the Web was taking off. His company, Generation Net, was a hit with consumers from the start—although it almost went bankrupt at the end of its first year as its user base expanded faster than expected. “You make your money in servicing users, not in attracting them,” says Bornstein. With losses averaging $20,000 a month, Generation Net was down to its last $30,000 and, Bornstein recalls, he was “waking up every morning at 3 o’clock in a cold sweat.” Spector again came to the rescue: he told Bornstein that if he found some funding elsewhere, he would provide more money. After the Business Development Bank of Canada offered a loan, Spector invested $250,000. The company began turning a profit—and expanded operations by offering Web services aimed at businesses. But when communications giants like BCE began providing Internet service, Bornstein figured the field was becoming too crowded. So when a syndicate put together by Yorkton Securities made an offer, he sold out for $ 11 million in mid-1999—and pocketed almost half that himself, while agreeing to remain as CEO of the new firm.

That left Bornstein a newly minted millionaire—but resdess. About that time, through mutual friends, he met Nulman, a relentlessly energetic whirlwind who was becoming twitchy after 15 years running Montreal’s Just for Laughs Comedy Festival. They became fast friends—so much so that from the start, they were starting or finishing each other’s sentences. Bornstein persuaded Nulman to quit his job and join him on a start-up venture, advising companies how to make Web sites more user-friendly. One problem: his company’s new owners didn’t want to move in that direction. So Bornstein put down $300,000 of his own money—enough to carry through on the plans he and Nulman made for the next two years—and quit his old firm to chase new ideas.

These days, it’s hard to visit Montreal or Toronto without hearing some mention of one or both of the fluently bilingual partners: they’re active in charities and community affairs, and the never-ending comic riff between them—with Bornstein playing straight man against Nulman’s Seinfeldesque observations—makes them a favourite on the social circuit. “The thing Andy’s done for me,” says Bornstein, “is that I wake up in the morning and cant wait to go to work.” That good humour is infectious. “I see these guys together, and they just make me start to laugh,” says their investor MacDonald. All the way, they hope, to the bank.