Original Mobster 

Andrew Samtoy's simple plan has sparked an international cash-mob sensation

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Dave Ferrante won't talk numbers. The owner of Visible Voice says only that the November Cash Mob was a very strong night for the five-year-old bookstore. He admits that a lot of the people Samtoy brought in have returned, then he adds: "I didn't think it would get any legs beneath it. I didn't think it would catch on like wildfire."

But he was wrong. The biggest Cash Mob payoff was yet to come. "In the past month, I've been interviewed by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, some national paper in Canada, and National Public Radio," Ferrante says. And all that was before a CNN crew flew in just two weeks ago, wanting to interview Visible Voice's staff about Samtoy's Cash Mobs before hopping over to Big Fun. "It's like the gift that keeps on giving. It's been great exposure for the store and for Tremont."

Ferrante marvels at the attention, but he's more impressed by Samtoy's refusal to profit from it. "You're getting hits on your website from all over the world — you've got to figure out how to make money on it," he has told Samtoy. "He said he doesn't care about that."

In fact, Samtoy has never claimed ownership of Cash Mobs at all. He says it's something anyone can do, and for good reason. Early on, while they were still planning the Visible Voice mob, Samtoy and Mordarski discovered that someone else had already launched the concept in Buffalo — and had done it three months earlier.

"Frankly, it was my idea, and I'm proud of it. But they came up with it on their own," says Chris Smith, an engineer at Oracle and a writer for Buffalo's alternative weekly, ArtVoice. "I think it's kind of an open-source idea. If someone tries to make money off it, nobody will come. If a corporation tries to do it, nobody will come."

Smith is organizing the seventh Buffalo Cash Mob, and he says whenever he has requests from people wanting to organize one in their own city, he sends them to Samtoy's blog. "They do a tremendous job," Smith says. "And Andrew's a kind of connector."

Readers of Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 best seller The Tipping Point will instantly recognize the label. A national trend, Gladwell wrote, cannot happen without at least one "connector" — a person with a huge number of acquaintances, all of whom the connector tends to view as close friends. Samtoy has read the book four or five times. "Do you want me to take the connector test?" he responds on Facebook, with a smiley face for extra punctuation.

The Tipping Point premise seems to apply here. Buffalo had monthly Cash Mobs beginning in August, but nothing took root outside of Buffalo. Within days of Samtoy's November mob at Visible Voice, Cash Mob hashtags for other cities started populating Twitter. Was it the sheer power of social media that advertising types are quick to crown? No, Cash Mobs went viral because of who Samtoy knows.

"My friends just saw what I was doing and thought they'd do it too," he says. Then he begins the list. "Lisa Gilmore in L.A. was the hot, hot girl on student council I never had the courage to talk to." Portland cash mobs are organized by someone Samtoy worked with on an Oregon gubernatorial campaign. Houston and South Carolina? College buds. Chicago? A fellow groomsman in a wedding. Boston? A fellow Case law school grad. Albuquerque? A girl he went to school with.

One of these "core organizers," as Samtoy refers to them, is childhood friend Lauren Way from his hometown of San Diego. "In eighth grade he used to terrorize my cat," she says. "He would pretend head-butt him."

The HIV researcher says she's always cared about small businesses, but at least in her case, it wasn't exactly a matter of jumping to volunteer. She was nudged. Way followed Samtoy as he deposited nuggets of the idea on Facebook, and she later saw that there was going to be a Cash Mob in San Diego. She wanted to attend and asked him who the organizer was.

"You're the organizer," he replied.

"He has a way of sucking you in," says Way, who recently guided San Diego through its third Cash Mob and is now caught up in the thrill of it all. And the media attention? "It's crazy — crazy," she says. She too has been on the national news, and she knows how they found her. "It's because of Andrew. He's amazing, and he just finds the press everywhere."

In fact, Smith in Buffalo says the first time he heard from Samtoy and Mordarski, they said they had media coverage planned and wanted to ask permission to give him credit for the idea. Samtoy had secured himself an NPR slot and local press coverage for the first Cleveland Cash Mob at Visible Voice the month before it even happened.

Despite the coverage, Clevelanders only learned of the second one through Facebook or Twitter. And locals were oblivious to any sign of the growing movement taking hold elsewhere.

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