Nov. 3, 2004 - By day, they're typical college guys. They cram for exams, drink too much coffee, and reluctantly drag themselves to undergraduate classes early in the morning.
When the sun sets on their University of Arizona campus, though, the roommates become up-and-coming business executives, armed with a heavy wallet and a killer idea.
Their idea is VideoRhythm - a service they've started that allows advertisers to follow the American public right into shopping malls and turn heads with flashy commercials in front of food-court lines or near busy movie ticket counters.
The first materialization of the idea resides in Foothills Mall, outside the entrance to Loews Cineplex. It arrived Oct. 1.
It's a high-definition plasma screen that rests on a one-of-a-kind mahogany stand that is meant to be art. If the college roommates get their way, it will become a big hit for Tucson advertising. That is the dream.
The guys - Mohit Asnani, Chet Cave and Abhishek Dobhal (who recently graduated) - are learning young just how much openness and flexibility it takes to turn a dream into reality.
It all started in February with a magazine article. Asnani, now VideoRhythm's 22-year-old president, but then just a plain student, was reading about a new concept in advertising.
Digital ads - flashy, quick commercials without voiceovers or storylines - were being tested in popular malls in San Francisco and New Jersey.
Asnani's thoughts immediately turned to the malls he frequented in Tucson. Digital ads, he thought, would jazz them up.
"That could work here," Cave remembers agreeing when Asnani casually mentioned the article to his roommates. Their next thought was life-changing - "Who's going to do it?"
When the three roommates committed themselves to developing a VideoRhythm business plan, their imagined product was nothing like the product they later ended up with.
They wanted eye-catching, above all. They'd seen plasma screens on gym walls on campus, and they knew how such screens easily blended into their background. They envisioned a dome-shaped base for their freestanding plasma screen - bigger and brighter than anything around it.
"It looked like a big skittle," Asnani said, grinning sheepishly. "I'm glad we got our consultants on that."
Despite its present unpopularity with the roommates, the "big skittle" model actually did well with the investors. Based on that model, the young entrepreneurs acquired $25,000 from a friend's dad, an uncle and a supportive colleague.
When the entrepreneurs hit the Tucson malls, though, their bright, eye-catching dream ended. Malls didn't want to lease space for objects that interfered with their décor.
"You can't get into a mall with something they don't want," Asnani said. The skittle was a flop.
The three college roommates could have quit right then - throwing off their business suits, hitting the textbooks harder, and chalking up their early failure to lack of experience.
Instead, they went back to the malls.
This time, they had no product. Instead, they had questions - If not the skittle, then what? What would malls lease space for? How could VideoRhythm get its digital ads in front of shoppers?
The questions worked. Malls would rent space for digital ads, it turned out, if their presentation enhanced mall décor.
"That was our biggest revelation," Cave said. "That really changed our corporate structure for what we were doing."
The roommates decided to invest a load of money in a classy sign designer. While perusing the upscale La Encantada shopping mall one day, they found the right one.
After a few consultations with the company that designs La Encantada's signs, they earned entry into Foothills Mall of a freestanding plasma sign tailored to the mall's décor.
On Oct. 1, the sign took its place in front of long lines of ticket buyers outside the mall's Loews Cinema.
Regina Harmon, the mall's specialty leasing manager, said that though she knows of malls that hang digital signs in their food courts over sitting areas, she'd never seen a free-standing sign before VideoRhythm approached her.
"I think it will probably get a lot more attention than the ones suspended from the ceiling, because it's in your face," Harmon said. "You pass by and see it. People who purchase advertising from them are getting more bang for their buck."
At the time of the EXPLORER's interview, the roommates were working to close their first ad deal; but in the meantime, their VideoRhythm sign was entertaining mall shoppers with filler material - majestic scenes from nature.
The roommates sometimes show up incognito to judge what kind of response their sign is getting. They see young children climbing on it, old couples musing at it, and pre-teens trying to gauge whether it's interactive.
Their VideoRhythm company employs a veteran freelance ad designer, four part-time marketing reps, and a guy who maintains their sign.
The roommates hope to expand to other malls. Eventually, they dream of having VideoRhythm signs in grocery stores that advertise the very brands available on the shelves.
They remain open, though, to any unfolding scenario of what they believe is a killer idea.
"From the beginning, we were sure this was going to work," Cave said. "If you have the fear it's not going to work, you shouldn't be doing it."