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So Steve Jobs walks into a sushi bar...

Posted by Scott Kirsner  July 6, 2011 11:30 AM

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How far would you go for an opportunity to talk about your business with one of the world's best-known technology entrepreneurs?

Rajat Suri, founder of E La Carte, which is developing a tabletop ordering system for restaurants, went pretty far. (I wrote about E La Carte last October; Suri dropped out of a master's program at MIT to work on the company full-time, and later moved to California to participate in the Y Combinator program for start-ups.)

This past spring, Dave Balter, one of Suri's investors and the founder of BzzAgent, was out in Palo Alto for a visit. He and a colleague, Jennifer Fremont-Smith, had a few hours before they needed to catch a red-eye flight back to Boston, and they asked Suri about good places to grab dinner nearby. Suri recommended a sushi spot, adding, "Steve Jobs goes there all the time."

Balter and Fremont-Smith went over, and as they sat at a table, who should come in but Jobs himself, grabbing a seat in the middle of the sushi bar. They both snapped photos with their mobile phones Jobs was clad in his trademark black turtleneck, and looked pretty frail but didn't go over to say hello. Though Balter and Fremont-Smith are both working on a start-up together, "I didn't consider going up to him for a second," Fremont-Smith says. "It did not feel like a pitch moment to me."

But Balter did text Suri to let him know about his Silicon Valley celeb sighting, and he sent along the pic. Suri showed up at the restaurant a short while later. "It was kind of an impulsive thing," Suri says. "Maybe it's just stupidity."

Though there wasn't an empty seat at the sushi bar in Balter's photo, by the time Suri arrived, a spot had opened up right next to Jobs. Suri took it.

e-la-carte.jpgSince Suri had been to the restaurant several times before, he and Jobs chatted a bit about the menu. (Jobs touted the mackerel.) Suri just happened to have brought one of his company's tablet-like, wireless ordering devices (pictured at right) with him. He didn't want to come out and ask if he could demo it for Jobs. So instead, he put the device on the counter in front of him and started tapping through its features, which include games and digital images of food and beverages that a patron might order.

"He stopped eating his food and was staring at me the entire time," Suri says. "I was hoping that he would ask me questions, rather than my having to say, 'This is what we're working on.' But he didn't take the bait." And Suri couldn't quite find the right conversational gambit to ask Jobs for feedback on what he had built.

Suri does sound like he regrets not getting a gem or two of wisdom from Jobs, who knows a thing or two about what makes consumer electronics easy to use.

But he does note that he's had a decent track record with other interactions with tech bigwigs. Not long ago, Google chairman Eric Schmidt was visiting the company's Cambridge office to speak with employees. Suri smooth-talked his was into what sounds like a group interview session that Schmidt was conducting with several journalists, and he lobbed a few questions of his own. When the press event was over, Suri told Schmidt that he'd left MIT to work on a start-up, asked if Schmidt ever made investments in fledgling companies, and got Schmidt's card. Though Suri had several subsequent conversations with someone who helps manage Schmidt's investments through TomorrowVentures, it didn't lead to any money for E La Carte. (The company has raised over $1 million from other investors, however.)

"It's pretty easy to get to these people if you know how," Suri says. "I think that's the moral of the story."

I'm not sure I would've had the chutzpah to take the seat next to Jobs, and neither Balter nor Fremont-Smith chose to seize the opportunity.

How would you have played the situation?

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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