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For a Zephyrhills entrepreneur, fear becomes a marketing tool.
By THOMAS LAKE, Times Staff Writer
Published December 10, 2007
When the weapon is fired at close range it sends the target into a minor convulsion: The hands go up, as if to shield the face, the knees bend toward a defensive crouch, and the whole body recoils from the force. This is meant to be hilarious.
The weapon is a customized car horn, tuned and amplified to sound like the horn of a freight train, mounted on a long black sedan. Two men are inside; one has a video camera.
They blast thugs on the street and women at the drive-through. They blast an old man in high pants. They blast a cat and some dogs and a herd of horses. They ask people for directions and the people come close and then they get blasted.
A child covers one ear and a young woman clutches her heart. A homeless man begs for mercy. A man on crutches crosses the street in front of them and they blast him and he does not fall but he trembles.
The men in the car laugh very hard.
"Hornblasters.com!" one of them yells.
He is referring to the company that sells the train horns, from a garage on a one-lane dirt road in Zephyrhills. He does not work for Hornblasters, but he has played a vital role in its success.
This is, after all, the Internet age, where notoriety has cash value and terror can be a marketing tool.
Matt Heller, the founder of Hornblasters, admits he has mixed feelings about the videos that drive demand for his horns.
"I signed a deal with the devil," he said, only half-joking.
Heller, 26, said Hornblasters began around 2002, when he drove a low-rider pickup truck to work at the Home Depot on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in New Tampa. Other drivers frequently cut him off, perhaps because they didn't notice his small truck. Heller had always loved trains, and he got an idea: He went on eBay, bought a used Airchime train horn and found a way to power it through his truck's pneumatic suspension. Suddenly, he could punish inconsiderate drivers.
"I was just waiting for someone to cut me off," he said.
Fellow motorists were both startled and impressed. Some rolled down their windows at traffic lights to ask him where they could get such a horn.
Business is a blast
Heller does not necessarily fit the profile of high-tech entrepreneur: He has no formal business education, and he has been arrested on charges of grand theft and domestic battery, though in both cases the charges were dropped. Nevertheless, he realized his idea could make him some money. He started Hornblasters with a Capital One credit card.
His first breakthrough came when he cut a deal with a toy manufacturer to produce a high-grade plastic replica of a train horn. It's not as loud as the original, but it sounds similar and it's much cheaper. A complete setup, with air compressor and installation, can be had for about $600 - if you're willing to risk getting a ticket under a state law against the unreasonable blowing of horns.
Heller's second breakthrough came when a car salesman in Jacksonville bought one of his horns, and then another and another, until he had equipped his Mercury Marauder with nearly $8,000 worth of horns.
The car salesman's name was Randy Lindsey. He enjoyed scaring friends with his furious new trumpets, but then he discovered it was even more fun to scare strangers. He and a friend started videotaping their shenanigans. He mailed tapes to Heller, who ignored them until Lindsey got a client with video-editing skills to put the footage on DVD. Heller took another look and saw an opportunity. The video clips got a name: Terror on the Streets.
A Web phenomenon
The clips spread through the Internet like viruses. They were viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube alone. Traffic to the Hornblasters Web site increased dramatically, and so did sales. Heller won't say exactly how many horns he has sold.
Then something changed. Lindsey blames the shifting winds of karma. His wife kicked him out. He was arrested on an allegation that he got drunk and fired a gun at someone and missed. According to the State Attorney's Office in Duval County, he pleaded no contest. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail.
Lindsey stopped terrorizing people. He sold the Marauder to Heller. He is trying to clean up his life.
"I'm ashamed," he said. "I ... sure ain't going to be blowing any horns anymore."
Now Heller has a shortage of fresh train-horn footage. He says his lawyer has advised him not to produce any terror clips himself. Web traffic has plummeted, and so have sales.
Heller points out that his horns have nonthreatening applications - such as scaring birds at a fish hatchery or warning miners deep in the earth - but the Terror on the Streets videos are the most vivid way to show them off. He has employees to pay and creditors to appease. He still displays the clips on his Web site.
There are at least 10 installments of Terror on the Streets. There are hundreds of victims. It will cost you nothing to watch them recoil.
Times staff members Jamal Thalji, John Martin and Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at email@example.com or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245.
[Last modified December 10, 2007, 00:07:57]