A Detroit entrepreneur who succeeded through thick and thin.
Detroit is two weeks away from filing for bankruptcy when Tom Nardone calls me from his car. He travels through his hometown to visit abandoned parks. Of Detroit’s more than 300 public parks, about two-thirds have been disowned by the city. Hundreds of overgrown lots stain this former manufacturing center, too tangled in weeds for children to play. Today, Nardone visits one with a jungle gym that was recently sprayed with kerosene and set on fire. Instead of playing in the parks, the kids of Detroit stay indoors or play in the streets. When they are old enough, many leave.
“In Detroit, you see abandoned things all the time,” says Nardone. “It’s very common to see things decaying. This is what the city looks like.
Nardone, 43, a married father of three, remained. As his city deteriorated, his own career, or career, flourished. As Detroit’s rare achievement, Nardone is an anomaly, but his roundabout path to entrepreneurial success – from the Motor City engineer to the founder of Internet 1.0 startup to the lucky beneficiary of the Great Recession to the unlikely urban philanthropist – is also a kind of microcosm of the last twenty years of American economic trends.
Today, he walks through abandoned parks cutting the grass with the Mower Gang, the initiative that cemented his status as a local hero. He started the Mower Gang in 2010, after hearing an NPR interview with Robert Putnam, author of Bowling alone, in which the political scientist lamented the decline in civic engagement in the United States. Nardone had a revelation: he had always wanted a lawn tractor, so why not buy one now and use it to repair abandoned parks in the city?
Within months, he had attracted a small group of volunteers. The Mower Gang’s first major project was the Velodrome, an abandoned cycle racing track; the event attracted press teams and cameramen, and more volunteers. Media awards followed, as did the Detroit City Council’s Spirit of Detroit Award. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, recently broke with the gang, cameras in tow. Today the gang mows every other Wednesday after work.
What line of work is Nardone in, you might ask? When he’s not mowing parks or carving pumpkins with power tools (he runs a website, Extreme pumpkins, dedicated to crafts), this pillar of the community pays the bills via ShopInPrivate.com, or PriveCo, the website he founded in 1998 to focus on the covert distribution of potentially embarrassing items. While the Internet was still considered a passing fad, he saw in his anonymity the potential to revolutionize consumption habits. “On the Internet,” he says, “you can buy things that are too embarrassing to buy in person in a store, like bikini waxes, shampoo for oily hair, or artificial vaginas.”
He also, quite prophetically, identified a commodity that many consumers would find increasingly valuable as commerce moved online: privacy. PriveCo products are shipped in plain brown boxes simply labeled “PriveCo Inc.”, the same name that appears on your credit card statement. PriveCo does not maintain any mailing lists, send no spam, and never sell your information. Buying a product from PriveCo will not come back to haunt you.
PriveCo has a plethora of items, but their main focus is sex toys. Pretty much every sex toy you can imagine – and some you probably can’t – is for sale; Nardone and its associates test the quality of their products and grade them accordingly. “Every vibrator will claim to be ‘quiet’ and really powerful no matter what,” he says. “And someone has to set the record straight on this stuff.” We therefore classify all our vibrators.
Nardone is clearly proud of his company’s commitment to quality. He mentioned a recent test of edible personal lubricants, where “we just had to bite the bullet and try them all”. (“What you’re really looking for is sweet,” he explains. “Very little aftertaste. Strawberry is definitely the best flavor.”) The brand recognition overshadows quality in the spirit of the brand. most people, says Nardone, which leads to the dominance of some mediocre products like Fleshlight. “If there was a consumption report on sex toys, the fleshlight would be like the Dyson vacuum, “he says.” It’s super expensive, that’s been a lot of press, but you must be wondering, is something else working too? “
It turns out that something does. “The Chanel St. James Pocket Pussy is definitely just as good,” he says. “We tested it.”
Nardone had no intention of becoming a sex toy mogul. Born and raised primarily in Boston, he studied mechanical engineering in both college and graduate school, and got a job as an automotive engineer at Ford’s Detroit company, writing business plans. and developing new product ideas. But he largely gave up engineering when he opened PriveCo. The company struggled at first; in the late 1990s, Money magazine called it a “net loser” for not using a mailing list and predicted its rapid downfall. But PriveCo held on and launched several new websites, including Vibromasseurs.com and Bachelorette.com, throughout the following decade.
Then the recession hit and PriveCo’s profits exploded. Sales of sex toys, especially those purchased online, soared during the crisis. PriveCo, once despised as the Pets.com of the discreet shopping market, has made a significant profit throughout the crisis. “The only thing that affects our business,” says Nardone, “is if Google puts us first when you type vibrators. “
It was the excess profit that enabled Nardone to purchase its first industrial grade mower and start its group of mowers. Little admiring articles about Nardone, mention his day job; the one who does describes PriveCo as a website “that offers personal care products, such as nose hair trimmers”.
I asked Nardone what he tells people about his business. “It’s brutal,” he said. “I avoid it. You know, I have three children and I wonder: Do these people know my children? Will they talk to their teacher?“
I asked if his children understood what he was doing. “They know I sell embarrassing things,” he says, “but they don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment yet. They went to the warehouse, so they took some of it.
In terms of the dissonance between the nature of her business and her family life, Nardone downplays any tension, but the tension is there. “I hope I don’t screw up my kids,” he said. “That would take away the point of this whole thing.” I do what I do for a living so that I can raise my children the right way. “
He also does this to purchase and maintain his expensive, high-quality mowers. Nardone is clearly thrilled to be a handyman, a problem solver. For him, the lack of good sex toys – and reliable information about sexy toys – was an issue that needed to be addressed. The same goes for his Mower Gang: Detroit had a problem, and Nardone knew how to fix it.
Nardone’s stature as a community hero of Detroit keeps growing, and Detroit needs every problem-solving means it can get. Poverty, unemployment and homelessness are crawling in the bankrupt city. In order to settle its debts, the town hall has considered selling his art collection. Detroit’s public school system faced brutal cuts and school closures year after year. There is very little hope in Detroit.
On one level, Nardone recognizes this reality; yet he also seems unable to accept the fate of the city. Ironically, the same economic trends that guided America through the turn of a century and the start of a new – and into a devastating collapse, for the people of Detroit and so many others – have also were the trends that propelled Nardone to success. His first job, as an automotive engineer in Detroit, is now more or less extinct. Like the rest of the world, he jumped on the web startup bandwagon; unlike the rest of the world, it has been supported, not hurt, by the recession. Unlike his colleagues who have been successful in going online business, he has not made his business a data mining company, but instead place less and less importance on their privacy. And at a time when charitable donations keep diving, Nardone devotes a significant portion of her time to helping an oppressed community.
Nardone is just one man, but cities like Detroit will continue to rely on one-man theories of economic recovery, because even as the US economy lags towards recovery, small governments and new flights of sequestration cuts weaken or wipe out basic services for those for which the government was once responsible. The duty of maintaining parks and playgrounds – or feeding the poor, funding the arts, fighting disease – fell on the likes of Tom Nardone, or on a larger scale, the mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, or billionaire industrialist David H Koch, or Kickstarter. The Detroiters might not like Nardone’s day job. But they need him too much to care.