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Highfliers share dot-com disaster stories -- on paper

©Los Angeles Times
February 8, 2002

Like a modern-day Dickens, Stephan Paternot witnessed the best and worst of times.

A year after graduating from Cornell in 1996, the co-founder of Web site was worth nearly $100-million. His company's stock set a Wall Street record when it jumped 606 percent in its first day of public trading. At 24, he became emblematic of the cocky boy geniuses using the World Wide Web to change the rules of business, media and life itself.

In 2000, though, Paternot stepped aside as chief executive of, and the site shut down a year later after losing millions of dollars. Gone were Paternot's paper fortune, his fashion-model girlfriend and the fawning reports on CNBC.

"It suddenly dawned on me that I might get nothing out of this, not a penny. For all intents and purposes, I was broke. . . . But of course, everyone still perceived me as a billionaire," Paternot wrote in his memoir.

His book, A Very Public Offering: A Rebel's Story of Business Excess, Success, and Reckoning, is one of many being written by former dot-commers searching for meaning in the giddy years from 1995 to 2000.

These modern journals -- including Dot.Bomb: My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath and Boo Hoo: A Dot.Com Story From Concept to Catastrophe -- aspire to be the first drafts of an equally momentous era that inspired great technology and terrible investments.

The books themselves are inherently ironic. The authors once seemed poised to make old media obsolete. But they had to turn to ink and paper to memorialize businesses that evaporated in the ether of the Internet.

"Even in a digital age, paper matters," said J. David Kuo, author of Dot.Bomb and former Value America executive. "Tactile paper can relay history better than anything else can."

Some fret that these books -- equal parts history, confession and damage control -- present a skewed picture. Rather than provide serious analysis from inside the dot-com meltdown, most of the authors try to distance themselves from the billions of dollars in equity that simply disappeared.

"It's just a celebration of the cluelessness of the people who created this whole mess in the first place," said Bill Lessard, founder of, a Web site catering to the information industry's technical workers. "Instead of trying to glam their stupid companies on people, they're trying to glam themselves as products on people."

History, though, is in the hands of those who hold the pen. Despite their portrayal in the media as titans of the "new economy," Paternot, Kuo and others describe themselves as innocents who got caught up in the euphoria of big dreams and easy money.

"Despite the hype, headlines and hysteria, this was just a gold rush we were in, not a gold mine we had found," Kuo wrote. "A lot of us were kin to those poor, freezing fools in Alaska who had staked everything on turning up a glittering chunk of gold."

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