Detroit is two weeks away from filing for bankruptcy when Tom Nardone calls me from his car. He’s tooling around his hometown visiting abandoned parks—of more than 300 public parks in Detroit, about two-thirds have been disavowed by the city. Hundreds of overgrown lots mottle this onetime manufacturing hub, too tangled with weeds for children to play in. Today, Nardone visits one with a jungle gym that’s been recently doused with kerosene and set on fire. Instead of playing in parks, Detroit kids stay inside, or play on the streets. When they’re old enough, many leave.
“In Detroit, you see abandoned things all the time,” Nardone says. “It’s very common to see things in decay. That’s just what the city looks like.”
Nardone, 43 and a married father of three, has stuck around. As his city has decayed, his own career, or make that careers, have thrived. As a rare feel-good success story out of Detroit, Nardone is an anomaly, but his roundabout journey to entrepreneurial success—from Motor City engineer to Internet 1.0 startup founder to fluke-ish beneficiary of the Great Recession to unlikely urban philanthropist—is also a sort of microcosm of the last 20 years of American economic trends.
Today, he’s zipping around abandoned parks cutting grass with the Mower Gang, the initiative that cemented his status as a local hero. He started the Mower Gang in 2010, after he heard an NPR interview with Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, in which the political scientist bemoaned the decline of civic engagement in the U.S. Nardone had an epiphany: He’d always wanted a lawn tractor, so why not buy one now and use it to fix up the city’s abandoned parks?
Within months, he had attracted a small group of volunteers. The Mower Gang’s first major project was the Velodrome, an abandoned bicycle racing track; the event attracted press and camera crews, and more volunteers. Media accolades followed, as did the Detroit City Council’s Spirit of Detroit award. Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef, recently mowed with the gang, cameras in tow. Today, the gang mows every other Wednesday after work.
What line of work is Nardone in, might you ask? When he’s not mowing parks or carving pumpkins with power tools (he maintains a website, Extreme Pumpkins, devoted to the craft), this pillar of the community pays the bills via ShopInPrivate.com, or PriveCo, the website he founded in 1998 to focus on discreet distribution of potentially embarrassing items. When were still dismissing the Internet as a fleeting fad, he perceived in its anonymity the potential to revolutionize consumer habits. “On the Internet,” he says, “you could buy things that are too embarrassing to buy in person at a store, like bikini waxes, or oily hair shampoo, or artificial vaginas.”
He also, quite prophetically, pinpointed a commodity than many consumers would find increasingly precious as commerce moved online: privacy. PriveCo’s products are shipped in plain brown boxes simply labeled “PriveCo Inc.,” the same name that appears on your credit card statement. PriveCo maintains no mailing list, sends out no spam, and never sells your information. Buying a product from PriveCo won’t come back to haunt you.
PriveCo offers a host of items, but its main focus is sex toys. Virtually any sex toy you can imagine—and some you probably can’t—are for sale; Nardone and his associates test their products for quality and rank them accordingly. “Every vibrator’s going to claim it’s ‘whisper quiet’ and really powerful, no matter what,” he says. “And someone needs to set the record straight on that stuff. So we rank all our vibrators.”
Nardone takes obvious pride in his company’s commitment to quality. He mentioned a recent test of edible personal lubricants, for which “we just had to bite the bullet and try them all.” (“What you’re really going for is mild,” he explains. “Very little aftertaste. Strawberry’s definitely the best flavor.”) Brand recognition eclipses quality in most people’s minds, Nardone says, which leads to the dominance of certain mediocre products like the Fleshlight. “If there were a consumer report on sex toys, the Fleshlight would be like the Dyson vacuum,” he says. “It’s super expensive, it gets lots of press, but you have to wonder, does something else work as well?”
As it turns out, something does. “The Chanel St. James Pocket Pussy is definitely just as good,” he says. “We tested it.”
Nardone did not set out to become a sex-toy tycoon. Born and mostly raised in Boston, he studied mechanical engineering in both college and grad school, and got a job as an automotive engineer at Ford’s Detroit firm, writing business plans and developing new product ideas. But he largely abandoned engineering when he opened PriveCo. The company struggled initially; in the late ’90s, Money magazine called it a “net loser” for not using a mailing list and predicted its swift downfall. But PriveCo held on and went on to launch several new websites, including Vibrators.com and Bachelorette.com, throughout the next decade.
Then the recession hit—and PriveCo’s profits went through the roof. Sales of sex toys, particularly those purchased online, skyrocketed during the downturn. PriveCo, once disdained as the Pets.com of the discreet-purchases market, made a significant profit throughout the slump. “The only thing that affects our business,” Nardone says, “is if Google puts us first when you type in vibrators.”
It was the surplus profit that allowed Nardone to purchase his first industrial-grade mower and start his Mower Gang. Few of the admiring articles about Nardone mention his day job; one that does describes PriveCo as a website “which features personal care products, such as nose hair trimmers.”
I asked Nardone what he tells people about his company. “It’s brutal,” he says. “I avoid it. You know, I have three kids, and I wonder: Do these people know my kids? Will they talk to their teacher?”
I asked if his kids understand what he does. “They know I sell embarrassing things,” he says, “but they don’t really understand the concept of embarrassment yet. They’ve been to the warehouse, so they’ve absorbed some of it.”
In terms of the dissonance between the nature of his business and his family life, Nardone downplays any strain—but the tension is there. “I hope I’m not screwing up my kids,” he said. “That would take away the purpose of this whole thing. I do what I do to earn a living so I can raise my kids the right way.”
He also does it to buy and maintain his expensive high-quality mowers. Nardone clearly thrills in being a tinkerer, a problem-solver. To him, the paucity of good sex toys—and reliable sexy toy information—was a problem that needed solving. The same is true of his Mower Gang: Detroit had a problem, and Nardone knew how to solve it.
Nardone’s stature as a community hero to Detroit is steadily increasing—and Detroit needs all the problem-solving it can get. Poverty, unemployment, and homelessness are rampant in the bankrupt city. In order to pay off its debts, the City Council has considered selling its art collection. The Detroit public school system has faced brutal cuts and school closures year after year. There is very little hope in Detroit.
On some level, Nardone recognizes this reality; yet he also seems unable to accept the city’s fate. Paradoxically, the same economic trends that guided America through the end of one century and the beginning of a new one—and to a devastating collapse, for the people of Detroit and for so many others—were also the trends that lifted Nardone into 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, he was buoyed, not wounded, by the recession. Unlike his fellow successful entrants into online commerce, he didn’t turn his company into a data-mining enterprise, but instead put a premium on their ever-diminishing privacy. And at a time when charitable giving continues to nosedive, Nardone invests a significant portion of his time to aiding a downtrodden community.
Nardone is only one man, but cities like Detroit will continue to rely on one-man theories of economic recovery—because even as the American economy limps toward recovery, small-government nostrums and new volleys of sequestration cuts are weakening or obliterating basic services for which the government was once responsible. The duty to maintain parks and playgrounds—or to feed the poor, to fund the arts, to fight diseases—has fallen to people like Tom Nardone, or on a grander scale, to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, or billionaire industrialist David H. Koch, or Kickstarter. Detroiters might not like Nardone’s day job. But they need him too much to care.