Who Wants to Be a Billionaire?

On the Internet, there's no accounting for taste. That makes it easy to explain the existence of Web pages with names like www.buttsacrossamerica.com and www.donkeysex.com. But what about that goody-two-shoes bluemountain.com? The crudest thing this site offers is its graphic design, a throwback to the days of 14.4 modems and Netscape 1.0. Instead of smut, visitors to bluemountain.com encounter a vast array of electronic greeting cards -- a disproportionate number of which feature dancing teddy bears -- that visitors can personalize and send to anyone with an e-mail address. For free.

Uncool? You betcha. Popular? And how. In September, of an estimated 2.8 million public Web sites, bluemountain.com was the eighteenth most-visited. That equates to nine million Web users visiting the site that month -- or about one in every nine people online.

Apparently, it doesn't matter that most of bluemountain.com's electronic greetings look like a twelve-year-old girl's Trapper Keeper. People love sending e-cards -- as long as they're free. Other, better-known greeting-card companies that tried charging customers to send e-cards fell flat on their faces. They had nice cards, but anemic sales and paltry hits.

Even bluemountain.com was uncertain what to do with its online success. The site is the Web spinoff of Boulder-based Blue Mountain Arts, publisher of greeting cards so syrupy you'd think Aunt Jemima was the CEO rather than two granola types. Self-proclaimed hippies Stephen Schutz and Susan Polis Schutz started the company in 1971; when their Net-savvy nineteen-year-old son Jared approached them several years ago about starting a Web page for Blue Mountain, it seemed like a lark. Instead of using the site to advertise and sell their cards, though, they developed a line of free online greeting cards. Why alienate visitors by running a lot of advertising or, even worse, charging for the cards? Old-hippie philosophy; new-age technology.

Far from alienating visitors, bluemountain.com brought them in droves. Soon more servers were required to keep up with the traffic. More artists were needed to design Thanksgiving cards in which turtles dressed as pilgrims danced with mice dressed as Indians. The site's popularity began to burden the core Blue Mountain business.

So last month bluemountain.com -- armed with its vast army of visitors but very little in cash and sketchy prospects of ever generating any from its loyal flock, sold itself for a staggering $780 million.

On the Internet, there's no accounting for accounting, either.

What makes Jared Schutz, executive director of bluemountain.com, interesting is not the fact that he's a 24-year-old self-made millionaire. Thanks to Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, any computer geek who hasn't made his first mil by age thirty is a certifiable slacker. And Schutz is no slacker. He's been worth a fortune for several years now -- at least on paper, thanks to the Chicago-based Internet service provider that he helped form while still in college and that he and his partners sold last year.

No, what makes Schutz interesting is the way he seems to be the real-life embodiment of Alex P. Keaton, a sitcom character played to perfection by Michael J. Fox in the Eighties series Family Ties. "Yeah, people say that a lot," Schutz admits. "I don't share his conservative ideology or anything. I remember he was a Reagan worshiper."

Schutz also lacks Alex's penchant for wearing business suits and neckties when completely inappropriate. He says he prefers a more laid-back look -- jeans, T-shirt, Velcro-strapped tennis shoes. He does, however, sport an e-mail-enhanced pager on his hip that's so large it's a wonder he doesn't tilt to one side. And in a picture accompanying a recent profile of bluemountain.com in USA Today, Schutz and his parents are shown perched on a rock -- dad in jeans, mom in a flowing skirt and overachieving son dressed for a power meeting. "I guess it says something symbolically," he concedes. "I'm far more comfortable in a boardroom than an art room."

Schutz shares something much more critical with the fictional Alex Keaton: two genuine Sixties idealists as parents. His father, Stephen Schutz, is a Princeton physics Ph.D.-turned-artist; his mother is Boulder poet Susan Polis Schutz. The pair got their start in business in 1970 selling posters out of a pickup truck they called their "office on wheels." The next year, they decided to settle down in Boulder, where they launched Blue Mountain Arts.

Most of the art was their own: Stephen's genteel watercolor artwork, paired with Susan's florid, emotive poetry. The combination struck a responsive chord with the public, and soon the duo was publishing books of poetry, greeting cards and calendars. Today, Blue Mountain Arts cards account for one-half of a percent of the estimated seven-billion-dollar greeting-card industry. (Both Stephen and Susan Schutz declined to be interviewed for this story.)

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Chris LaMorte