Frank Costanza had always been a visionary: bras for men, holidays for the perpetually annoyed, old TV Guides for hoarders. Maybe you could call it destiny in retrospect, but of course he’d eventually pivot to startups.
In October 1997, computers had already become a proven commodity. Incoming freshmen on college campuses owned ’em in droves. And for the masses, AOL had existed for a while and already passed 3 million users two years earlier. (As a matter of fact, Ars Technica would be founded in just over a year.) The market didn’t exactly look ripe for the taking. But when you possess the kind of perseverance to never take your shoes off for others—whether at their homes or in a swimming pool—then to hell with what conventional wisdom says.
And so, as chronicled in what I’ve always presumed to be a documentary called Seinfeld, Frank Costanza got to work. Well, first he sat on his couch and channel-surfed through cable.
Estelle Costanza: (from other room) Get George to put those boxes in the garage.
George Costanza: Dad, what’s all this?
Estelle: (from other room) It’s junk.
Frank: My computers. I’ve been selling them for two months now. Shut up!
George: You’re selling computers?
Frank: Two months ago, I saw a provocative movie on cable TV. It was called The Net, with that girl from the bus. I did a little reading, and I realize, it wasn’t that farfetched.
George: Dad, you know what it takes to compete with Microsoft and IBM?
Frank: Yes, I do. That’s why I got a secret weapon… my son.
To clarify, not even Steve Jobs returning to Apple and the introduction of the iMac and its Pantone powers could compete with IBM and Microsoft at this time, as once detailed on this very site.
Costanza himself seemed to understand this: his house appears filled with nothing but gear from potential PC competitors, after all. Spectre FT156 monitors, Microsoft Natural Keyboards, familiar cow-spotted Gateway 2000 packaging, even an Apple box or two. But again, visionary at work—Costanza and Son wouldn’t become another Windows-collaborating OEM. They were going after fatted calves like Circuit City and CompUSA as another third-party retailer. If these computer things moved like marble ryes, why not get in on the action directly?
Like all great tech startups, Costanza and Son started in Frank’s garage. And like all great startup CEOs, he didn’t give damn about your formal background (or potential personal-life red flags) if you could hit the ground running and make money.
The company’s approach could be called disruptive. In between ample amounts of (literally disruptive) shouting, its people relied on disconnected phones to sell direct to consumers as opposed to operating any retail space. Company compensation weighed heavily toward sales incentives, leading to an epic showdown between the founder’s son George and employee No. 1, Lloyd Braun. It resulted in tens of (self-reported) sales, Braun moving eight whole machines to take the initial lead before Costanza closed deals on 25.
My family never purchased a computer over the phone, but who could argue with persuasion like this?
George: You’ve got “shiksappeal.” Jewish men love the idea of meeting a woman that’s not like their mother.
Elaine: Oh, that’s insane.
George: I’ll tell you what’s insane: the price that I could get you on a new desktop computer.
Elaine: I am not buying a computer from you.
George: There’s porn.
Elaine: (pausing) Even so.
George: Damn it!
Sadly, Costanza and Son may have ultimately been ahead of its time. The company burned brightly but flamed out fast—a tragic, Office Space-style tech slaughter took down much of the company’s inventory before a bitter ex-spouse-turned-spouse-again literally ran over the rest. Cementing its legacy in tech retail, Costanza and Son achieved perpetual existence on the brink of bankruptcy long before competitors like Best Buy or Radio Shack ever could.
Frank Costanza (known outside the tech world as legendary comedian Jerry Stiller) died at the age of 92 this week. His “son” said every interaction was a “warm, delicious treat” and that everyone adored him. The NBC series’ namesake said you never wanted to “disturb [his work] in any way,” it was too perfect. We’ll simply add no one ever did dumb computer startup strategies better. And in these times, humanity needs his signature catchphrase now more than ever: “Serenity now.”
For more on Jerry Stiller, you can read about his remarkable life and career in this New York Times obituary among many other tributes. TBS is airing a best of Frank Costanza Seinfeld marathon today, Saturday May 16, starting at 4pm ET. “Serenity Now” will air today at 8pm. The series remains available on-demand through Hulu.
Listing image by NBCUniversal