Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet, Michael Wolff

Simon & Schuster, 1998, 268 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-84881-3

The Internet. There’s never been anything like it before, and chances are that there will never be anything like its first years again. From a technical point of view, the Internet is a one-shot result of events that somehow all coalesced in the mid-to-late nineties: The introduction of personal computers, the state of research in high-speed communication, the slow interlinking of the research backbone, the arrival of several media players, the rise of AOL, the availability of the development tools and concepts, the very basic Internet paradigm of distributed decentralization… all contributed at the explosive growth of the network.

Who says explosive growth usually means money. And money is a very strange thing. Our current economy is really a common hallucination, where even a rumour of bad news can quickly become a true catastrophe for those involved. In this context, the Internet -touted as “the next big big thing, bigger than TV”- was seemingly designed to send investors rushing to entrepreneurs. And vice-versa.

In Burn Rate, Michael Wolff gives a first-person testimony of the net’s early mass-media days -roughly 1996-1997-, when giants like Warner cautiously investigated what the fuss was all about, when naïve investors threw money at everything “new media” and when no one had a clue what they were doing. Same thing as today, right?

Yes and no.

Yes, it’s obvious that things have changed. Two years is a full generation on the web, and there’s definitely a certain air of staleness in what’s described in Burn Rate. Warner’s glorious “Pathfinder” site has been revealed for the Bad Idea it was, NetGuide is D-E-A-D dead and mergers have rocked the chaotic webscape even more. Many of the proposed business models, operating paradigms and development ideas in Burn Rate have been mutated, integrated or discarded, but are certainly not current any more.

And yet… no, things haven’t changed. Investors still rush to “dot-com” sites (though as of this writing, a “market correction” is taking place), Venture Capitalists still hope to create the Next Big Thing on the Internet, the Web looks more like 1997 than 1997’s web looked like 1996 (there’s been a stabilization of standards) and people still don’t know what they’re doing, even though the best of them now have a clue what the Internet is all about.

As a result, the book already reads as a quasi-anthropological glimpse in the net’s early days, and it remains to be seen if it can successfully transform itself from current business affairs to a historical document. If it does, it will be in no small part due to Wolff’s writing style, which possesses a certain humour and a telling eye for details. (The first chapter on Capital-raising conferences is an eye-opener) The book may drag in mid-read, after the initial strangeness and before Wolff’s ultimate downfall, but it can be read briskly. A good editor may have removed some meaningless name-dropping. Fortunately, the tale gets better as it ends, given Wolff’s curious position between creditors and debtors; a man forced to give up his own company after an alliance with a devilish investor.

A few readers may detect an edge of bitterness in Wolff’s narrative, and with good reason: Even though the man is now comfortably wealthy, he nevertheless failed to grab on the big Net rush of the late nineties, and saw the parade pass him by. Fortunately, he jotted down his impressions, and the result is a funny business tragedy described in a physical object that will probably remain in business school libraries for years to come. Who knew the Internet could produce such a thing?

Note: For such a “Webbish” book, Burn Rate‘s web site… well… sucks. Besides a “more complete” index (uh-huh…), there’s not much more here than standard brochureware, with carefully selected laudatory quotes, quotes from the book and the usual marketing drivelspeak. It’s also one of the ugliest web site I’ve seen in a long time… but don’t take my word for it, and check it out at http://www.burnrate.com/

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