After the gold rush

A Very Public Offering: a rebel's story of business

excess, success and reckoning

Stephan Patern

The internet gold rush - between 1995 and the crash of 2000 - was dominated by stories. Corporations that could show no profits, nor even genuine markets for their services, clung to their own wonderful narratives. As chief executives became the new myth-makers, "a great story" became an investment rationale, repeated like a mantra as Wall Street pumped these pointless ventures with cash.

Now these business "heroes", who no longer have the ears of investors, have turned to the book-buying public. Approaching their memoir-writing with that same gung-ho spirit in which they built their toppled corporations, they fashion breezy, unself-conscious accounts of adrenalin-fuelled times with hardly a nod to the reasons for the crash. Despite their fall, hubris is still very much in evidence. J David Kuo writes of the "great vision" of his defunct company's founder. And Ernst Malmsten writes: "I believe the dotcom revolution of the 1990s to have been a golden age, in which Boo's part is too important to be left untold." He does not, however, give any clues as to what kind of golden age this was.

What these different memoirs share is a sense of self-importance, as if because the businesses were given millions of dollars, the authors, or their bosses, were remarkable people. But in the grander narrative of the internet bubble, the central protagonist was the capital market itself, playing the puppeteer of the entrepreneurs, even the dumbest of whom seemed to gather millions of dollars. Focusing on their own heady excitement and endless encounters with private planes, gourmet dining and the best hotels, these memoirists tell only one half of the story of the era that Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, described as suffering from "irrational exuberance". They choose not to write about their own stupidity, or that of their investors, in believing fanciful ideas about how they were going to profit from the new market place.

So, as object lessons of the workings of late 20th-century capitalism, these books make poor primers; quite often, the authors themselves seem to misunderstand the working of the world. As Malmsten writes: "Being an entrepreneur was not about making money; it was about making dreams come true." One can't help feeling that his investors, who pumped in £130m, did not quite share these "anti-capitalist" beliefs.

A Very Public Offering is the most interesting of these books because its focus - TheGlobe.com, a service that offered free websites - was at least a genuine plot point in the dotcom madness. Its rocketing share flotation, in November 1998, jolted many previously conservative investment professionals into buying shares in internet companies, and so kick-started the final phase of the boom. At the time, Stephan Paternot was just 24 and a celebrity. His is not so much a business book, then, as a coming-of-age tale; if nothing else, he was in precisely the right place to be a genuine witness of the age.

By contrast, Boo Hoo - about the collapse of a British online fashion retailer - is curious if only for the peculiar arrogance of Malmsten, its thirtysomething chief executive, a man so cool and glamorous that he insistently makes a point of it on many of the book's pages. Gliding through his story, he never really makes the case for how he would make a profit. Yet he raises millions, only to be let down by a collection of not-quite-so-trendy helpers and then unfaithful investors. Characterising himself as an astute entrepreneur on the way up, his failure to take real responsibility for his company's fate, and his protestations that he was the tragic victim of its collapse, strike particularly hollow notes.

The two other books, both called Dot.Bomb, are too far away from the heart of the action to give any real insight into the time. Kuo's account of the second-tier online retailer ValueAmerica.com is scrappily told and focuses on the settling of petty old scores. And Rory Cellan-Jones, whose book is the only objective and journalistic account of this selection, writes about Britain. While his story is thankfully free of the personal preening of the others, this country was always too far from real drama, too late in the game and too small to make it a satisfying read.

What is most striking about all these books is how they depart from the tone of many previous tales about the technology-based industries, in which entrepreneurs possessed an almost messianic ambition for how their inventions would change the world. By contrast, these latecomers to the "new economy" seem to be driven by no more than money, power and fame. As such, the stories are fitting reminders of that golden age of guilelessness and greed.

Adam Wishart is the co-author of Leaving Reality Behind: the battle for the soul of the internet (Fourth Estate, April 2002)