Review of Rory Cellan-Jones’s ‘dot.bomb. The Rise & Fall Of Dot.Com Britain’
It is a fascinating irony of the dot.com start-ups that so many of its employees were, in a sense, living contradictions of the presumptions about the future their business models depended upon. E-commerce envisaged a world in which people would be content to access all their needs sat in solitude at a computer screen inside their own home – but what the people who actually worked at the dot.coms found most liberating about their new work environment were the old-fashioned pleasures of sociability and human interaction.
by Richard Marshall
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
In a fine moment in a fine corpus of writing collected under the title ‘A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again’, David Foster Wallace writes: ‘If you’ve played tennis at least a little, you probably think you have some idea of how hard a game it is to play really well. I submit to you that you really have no idea at all… I got to watch Michael Joyce practice several times, right up close, like six feet and a chain-fence away. This is a man who, at full run, can hit a fast-moving tennis ball into a one-foot-square area 78 feet away over a yard-high net, hard. He can do this something over 90% of the time. And this is the world’s 79th-best player, one who has to play the Montreal Qualies.’
Rory Cellan-Jones’s new book ‘dot.bomb. The Rise & Fall Of Dot.Com Britain.’ (Aurum Press Ltd 2001) is a fast-paced, dramatic and exciting series of narratives that tries to communicate just how difficult it was to be a top player in the heady atmosphere of dot.com fever. As the book blurb advertises, ‘For a heady nine months, until the spring of 2000, Britain had dot.com fever. Lastminut.com’s youthful founders saw their fledgling company soar to a valuation of £750 million, and Martha Lane Fox became a media star, Clickmango.com raised £3million in just days to sell health products online. Old-style industrial giants were edged out of the FTSE 100 by e-commerce newcomers employing handfuls of people and losing a fortune…
And then, just as swiftly, the bubble burst. London’s hi-tech stocks followed New York’s Nasdaq downwards. Boo.com, flashiest website of all, went through £100 million in mere months in its mission to sell designer sports gear. Financial analysts talked about burn-rate, and even the most glamorous start-ups couldn’t defy the oldest laws of business.’
This then is the basic outline of the story Cellan-Jones has to tell. He tells it with the pace and forward momentum of a thriller. His journalistic skills of telling a good story, maintaining the forward thrust of the narrative whilst at the same time ensuring that the main plot points are securely highlighted and communicated, are clearly in evidence throughout. He captures the excitement of the business world he is describing by plunging his readers into the aftermath and then using a detailed series of flashbacks to show us how everything turned out to be such a mess. There’s a punchy, expressive physical movement and emotional volatility we find in his stylish, near nourish take on the dramas he unfolds. From the very first line we’re on a roller-coaster ride with a cast of thousands , the allure of incredible wealth, fizzed up by youth and glamour and a disastrous end for all but the lucky few survivors. It’s a snap-crackle and pop book, a great read.
Cellan-Jones has interviewed many of the main players and by interspersing these voices into the narrative we are given a fluent and intimate picture of the events. This is one of the pleasures and strengths of the book – hearing stuff from the horse’s own mouths, so to speak, gives the reader a feeling for the characters involved. Cellan-Jones is particularly good at filling out these characters so we understand them as people as well as business players. One of the things the book does is show how important personality is in the making of business deals and partnerships. So much of the events in the book are fuelled by personal convictions, not just about the businesses themselves but also about who you might hook up with. And who you wouldn’t.
Personality and style clashes were the making and breaking of many a company. For instance, we’re told that when John Browning joined the First Tuesday team ‘He was something of a contrast to them – in his forties, settled in an elegant Islington home with his wife and two children, plugged into the internet scene but in a more donnish, laid back kind of way. He was enthusiastic about the project but it did not threaten to take over his life.’ (page 85) This is typical of the quick sketch journo outline Cellan-Jones provides for all his characters and enables us as readers to come in on the judgements. We get to be able to navigate some of the issues ourselves. We can see clashes coming – characters we just know are not going to get along. And vice versa. In this sense it works like a good novel.
Life style , a certain flash, sexy, cool but at the same time scruffy-grunge bitnik ambience is also a noticeable feature of what the epoch was about. ‘It is the young who are the most receptive to new technology and most prepared to work crazy hours in pursuit of the new , new thing. ‘Besides, you had to be young and fit to fight your way to the bar at First Tuesday.’ (Page 119) As Cellan-Jones points out ‘Working in a dot.com office was little different from sitting behind a desk in any other office, but it felt better.’ (Page 149) he cites one David Anstee here: ‘ Everyone’s young, it’s a new industry and we’ve got a new take on it. It’s a fun environment to work in.’ An anonymous character is quoted as saying; ‘You were not going to get a laugh at a dinner party if you said you worked for a dot.com. Whereas if you said you were a management consultant , you always got the old joke about being the man who hired to tell someone where the hands on his watch were pointing.’
The Alphabet Bar becomes an iconic dotcom venue, symbolising the fashionable drama of it all. According to Cellan-Jones ‘It was one of the hippest bars in Soho, the venue earlier that year for the first official absinthe tasting session in London since the 1920’s.’(page 84) We meet the digerati, the cybrarians, the microserfs and the guys and grrls who had ideas to sell … well, just about anything over the net. Again, Cellan-Jones is good not just at giving us the story but also pointing out interesting insights he has into the whys and wherefors of the whole thing. For example, he points out that dotcoms tend to be good at sending ideas rather than meat-world objects. And the drawback of this is that someone can always come along and undercut your price quite easily. In fact, as you read, there are some very interesting things that emerge from the story.
What seems to be clear from the story is that its important to understand just what parts of business are changed by the dotcom industry and which bits are not. One of the things I liked was Cellan-Jones insistence that actually it was the company of others that these business geeks found attractive. Despite the image of lone users drinking black coffee three nights and days without a break to bring about their dotcom biz – which of course really was happening all over the place, there was also a counter-reality which picked up the reminder that they were people too. Sex and booze and table football, bar-talk ironing out glitches, these too were also mainstays of the life.
As Cellan-Jones puts it, ‘It is a fascinating irony of the dot.com start-ups that so many of its employees were, in a sense, living contradictions of the presumptions about the future their business models depended upon. E-commerce envisaged a world in which people would be content to access all their needs sat in solitude at a computer screen inside their own home – but what the people who actually worked at the dot.coms found most liberating about their new work environment were the old-fashioned pleasures of sociability and human interaction.’ (page 151)
Another thing that didn’t change was the need to watch out for dodgy dealers and empty hype. For example, we read of Geoff who ‘ … confessed that he’d had some initial doubts about this entrepreneur who had made money as a publisher of adult material… When they had signed up they had travelled to the MD’s home in Mansfield. ‘He told me, “You won’t have any trouble finding it – it’s the one with the powder blue Jaguar and the Saab convertible parked outside.” The house was very ordinary – and I’m never too sure about someone whose car s are worth more than their house.’ Geoff remembered from his days in the photocopier trade that a flash new motor was always a sign of a businessman who was trying as little too hard to impress. He had visited the company’s offices just a month ago and found that MD had ordered a pink leather three-piece suit, a huge new desk and £20,000 worth of artwork for the walls. ‘All fur coat and no knickers’ was how he described it.’ (page 143)
You also get the clear picture that investors and speculators who were ignorant of the new industry and what it could do were responsible for inflating prices totally artificially and unrealistically. The very speed of the emerging new companies meant that the investors had to make up their minds very quickly and had to speculate in the dark. And that the market sorted out the ignorance by wiping out the paper millionaires pretty efficiently. The fact that everything bombed as it did is familiar and text book economics really. And the fact that when the dust settled there were just a few major players and all the rest were dead, well, how’s that really all that difference from what happened to, say, the early Oil Industry? Another thing that Cellan-Jones book makes pretty clear is that most of the new, young dot.com moguls were well educated, well connected and often pretty rich individuals to start with.
So the dot.com business world seems to behave pretty much like any other business. This is not the same as saying that the industry itself isn’t revolutionary and different from what has gone on before. But it does remind us to look carefully at what the differences are. The Oil Industry changed the world forever even though it behaves like any other massive business. So Cellan-Jones has written an entertaining but at the same time richly informative book about an emerging, powerful new business. He has given insights into how businesses really work and what skills are really required to set up and run a business. He has told the story skilfully in a language that is clear, invigorating and straight.
He finishes with an acute sense of what the story means; ‘For a few brief months Brent Hoberman, Martha Lane Fox, Michael Smith, Kajsa Leander, John Pluthero and many others had believed that they could defy gravity. Their ascent into the stratosphere was enormous fun to watch, their return to earth equally spectacular. Britain is a duller place now that the dot.com revolution appears to be over. But be sure of this – in a back bedroom somewhere, a teenager with a computer is plotting to start it all over again.’ (Page 244)
The image of business has changed – its sexy, its youthful, its new and its hi-tech. We need to embrace this. Would that our politicians and educators would take on board this simple message – to be good in this kind of environment means developing the social skills of confidence, communication, imagination and daring that so often get crushed by the control freaks, paranoids and conformists who run things. Although you have to say that having money and connections in the first place helps too!
Cellan-Jones has written a fine book and one which will make us reconsider the folly and beauty of greed, ambition and the human imagination. As Foster-Wallace reminds us, its tough playing tennis to the standard of Pete Sampras, even to the standard of Michael Joyce, Cellan-Jones has shown us here how tough it is to be a winner in another ultra-hip, youthful environment. It’s the story of a kind of techno disaster which he tells without the familiar hysteria of anti-technoculture pomo writing.