When Access Issues Arise, One Innovator Hears a Higher Calling
SAN FRANCISCO -- BestCalls.com isn't Mark Coker's first Silicon Valley startup. Before turning his attention to investor conference calls, Coker tried a rather bird-brained scheme.
In the backyard of his suburban Los Gatos, Calif., home Coker kept a columbary aflutter with more than 70 homing pigeons. Struck by their beauty one afternoon, he naturally hit upon the idea that people might pay to enjoy their splendor. "Pigeons represent everything I believe in," he says. "Peace and purity and honesty and fairness -- what could be better for a wedding?"
He busily began to acquire more snow-white pigeons for his fledgling business. He placed a newspaper ad in search of his first wedding. But just as everything was ready to launch, a competing wedding outfit cried fowl to the authorities -- Coker, it seems, was in violation of local poultry laws (the limit inside the city is four birds). He petitioned the authorities but to no avail. He got rid of the birds, and his first business was grounded.
Ten years later, Coker's latest venture, a Web site named BestCalls.com, is pecking at regulatory authority once again. But this time the stakes are higher. Now the 33-year-old has the Internet -- and maybe even the Securities and Exchange Commission -- on his side.BestCalls.com helps small-time investors access conference calls of publicly traded companies. Though little known outside the investing community, the conference call is indeed one of Wall Street's rare birds: unfiltered, raw information directly from company muckety-mucks. CEOs and CFOs generally hold a call each quarter after the release of earnings, fielding questions from financial analysts and big-time money managers. Murky financial statements are explained, and the privileged listeners are illuminated. Coker first learned of conference calls in a job as a publicist for McAfee software. "I was surprised at the level of discourse," says Coker. "The questions were smart, the answers were from the horse's mouth. There's no better way to skip through all the garbage and find out what's really going on with a stock." An active investor and creature of the Internet, Coker was trading stocks in his Schwab Online account and posting on bulletin boards like those on Yahoo! (YHOO) Finance and Silicon Investor. He began to contact the companies in which he was a shareholder and was shocked to find that they prohibited him from listening to the conference calls. Coker doesn't look the type usually invited into the boardroom with the suits. He's more accustomed to "Silicon Valley style" -- that is, none: Dockers, collared shirts, "comfortable" shoes. His one suit has hung in his closet since he left Berkeley. With mussed sandy hair, bright green eyes and a dreamy smile, his manner is all unperturbed Northern Californian, complete with the requisite regional hobbies (mountain biking and hiking). And then there's his aviary inclination. In his boyhood home, along with a mixed-breed cat (named Danguard) and a Dalmatian (Teddy), he lives with a covey of pigeons, a coopful of chickens, a rooster, a duck (named Mrs. Duck) and a parrot (with a name unsuitable for children). "They're relaxing," he says of his menagerie. "The sound of a rooster crowing in the morning is soothing to me." Never mind the neighbors. But being kept off conference calls irked Coker. He got into an online feud, flaming an investor-relations flack from storage-device maker Legato Systems (LGTO) on the Yahoo! chat boards. "They said, 'No way -- it's not our policy to let individual investors on conference calls,'" says Coker. "I made a pest of myself, but I finally gave up and sold my 3,000 shares." (A Legato spokesman confirms that earnings calls are invitation only, but the company now offers a delayed replay.)
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