Spectacular Dot-Com Flameouts
By Philip J. Kaplan
Simon & Schuster -- 191pp -- $18
Philip J. Kaplan didn't set out to chronicle the wrath of disappointed dot-commers. He simply decided to kill some time on Memorial Day weekend two years ago by setting up a site, F**kedcompany.com, that offered the latest gossip about sinking dot-coms with an online betting pool on when companies would go under. That impromptu decision briefly made Kaplan, a New York Web site designer, the gloating overseer of the dot-com reckoning.
Never one to shy away from the spotlight (he has been profiled by The New York Times, Salon.com, and ABC News's 20/20), Kaplan has expanded his franchise with F'd Companies: Spectacular Dot-Com Flameouts. Here, he offers capsule descriptions of about 150 of the wackiest ideas or biggest implosions. Kaplan lays out exactly how many millions the companies burned through and gives, in sometimes clever and often crude language, his sarcastic explanation for why they failed.
As the über-insider of the dot-com meltdown, Kaplan has plenty of material to work with. His Web site's betting pool assigns high scores to those submitting the best information about coming dot-com catastrophes. (There are no payouts--winning is its own reward.) So employees send often venomous e-mails to F**kedcompany.com, reporting rumors of pending layoffs, shutdowns, and bankruptcies. As more companies went under, sick fascination with the site became contagious, its notoriety spread, and postings from disgruntled employees snowballed. Because the information so often turned out to be accurate, reading the postings afforded the uncanny sensation of watching a car wreck in slow motion--or more precisely, an expressway pileup stretching for miles and miles.
The book trains a searchlight on the wreckage of companies from Webvan to sports site MVP.com--and reveals their shoddy underpinnings. Consider Kaplan's riff on startup Third Voice: "I've heard a lot of ridiculous dot-com ideas and business plans but this one was so inane that when I first heard of it, it actually pissed me off. Third Voice was a free little browser plug-in you could download that would enable you to put virtual "sticky notes" on Web sites.It was supposed to make the Web more `interactive.' Being the hooligan that I am, it seemed to me right away that the only practical application for such technology was to vandalize other Web sites. It sucked--especially if you were one of the investors who pumped $15 million into this toy."
Kaplan admits he knew little about the financial complexities of these outfits. But F'd Companies is an improvement over Kaplan's site in that it distills a lot of information while maintaining the mocking, satirical tone.
In the end, reading F'd Companies is a little like picking a scab that has nearly healed. Kaplan had a moment in time, but that moment was about nine months ago. By now, everyone and his Pets.com puppet has chimed in on how stupid the whole craze was. F'd Companies might have found a place as a vicious little catalog of the dead and gone if the ground hadn't been covered by so many other books already.
By Heather Green