Foomojo’s Strange Juju

The other day, I asked Ron Conway what his favorite new investment might be. He has so many, it’s never an easy question for him to answer; still, he said that off the top of his head, Foomojo was one startup about which he was excited. In fact, Ron and numerous other Valley angels have given the company $1 million in seed funding, and it’s preparing to raise a VC round.

The Redwood City, Calif.-based startup — which uses the URL, as well, curiously, as — is still in stealth mode, though that may change soon. (Next week, its CEO, Ron Hornbaker, will sit on a panel at AlwaysOn’s digital media conference in Los Angeles.) Its site does advertise that it’s doing “online games. Virtual economies. Widgetized distribution. That kind of stuff” and that it’s hiring.

I’m anxious to learn more. Conway’s investment strategy has been characterized as scattershot, but he’s done none too shabbily with that approach, from investments in Google to the Web discovery startup StumbleUpon, which sold to eBay for $75 million last year without ever raising a venture round.

Hornbaker is fascinating for other reasons. He’s founded a number of companies, including Alexaholic, BookCrossing, AnswerTrack, and PropSmart. The most recently founded of those companies, PropSmart, aggregates more than a million property listings from hundreds of online sources and it’s looking to become the go-to social network for buyers, sellers, and service providers. The most notorious of Hornbaker’s companies is Alexaholic, which basically outperformed Web tracker Alexa by blending Alexa’s data with better traffic graphs and a more enhanced interface than Alexa offered at the time.

Here’s where things get interesting, as people familiar with Hornbaker know. Amazon — which nine years ago paid $250 million in stock for Alexa — wasn’t amused when Alexaholic appeared on the scene, and it filed a complaint against the company just months after it was launched in 2006. To calm down Amazon, Alexaholic rebranded itself Statsaholic. Amazon wasn’t appeased, soon after filing a full-blown lawsuit claiming trademark infringement. That’s around when some brow-raising information about Hornbacker came out. To wit, as CNET reported in May 1996, he was convicted of extortion then for trying to blackmail America Online users into sending him money. Unlike a lot of white-collar criminals who get a slap on the wrist, Hornbaker spent a year and a half in Leavenworth Penitentiary for the crime.

Stranger still is the reason he gave Michael Arrington last year for doing what he did. According to Hornbaker, his then-infant daughter’s hospital bills had brought him and his wife to the brink of bankruptcy, and in a desperate state, he resolved to swindle people he deemed unethical (Hornbaker trolled for them in an AOL chat room called “Married But Looking,” where people knew him as a vixen named “Rita.”).

I guess I believe Hornbaker’s seriously crazy story, though I can’t get over his lousy judgment. What’s more surprising to me is that investors –who clearly know the story and will no doubt have to hear about it again and again when Foomojo debuts — are still willing to stake him.

Maybe the company is that compelling? Maybe Hornbaker is? We’ll find out soon enough, but I welcome your thoughts in the meantime…