Jøhnny Fävòrítê (johnnyfavorite) wrote,
Jøhnny Fävòrítê
johnnyfavorite

[book review] boo hoo

I am making it my personal mission in life to read every last book ever written that involves tech history from around 1960 onward. Today's entry: "boo hoo," the story of boo.com, written by one of its founders, Ernst Malmsten, who also served as CEO. A couple of other writers are also listed on the front cover. It's hard to ascertain what their role might have been, since the whole book is told in the first person.

The story started kind of slow. Or maybe that's just my reaction to it. From all evidence, the author appears to be an extrovert, and I am a classic introvert, so he was kind of rubbing me the wrong way. Certain less-than-flattering words were springing to mind. Shallow. Loudmouth. Braggart.

Of course I would think that, wouldn't I. One of my personal goals is to be less judgmental. There's a whole class of people who love to run down others and be against things, all the while convinced they are being savagely insightful and clever and eviscerating, while in truth they are demonstrating only that they're full of hate. These are the people you can thank for the calvin-peeing-on-things stickers. Yes, I used to be one of them, and maybe I still am. But I'm trying to quit. It's kind of a hard row to hoe, though. My instincts are all out of whack, I don't know where to draw the line.

BUT ANYWAY. Let's just say that in the first 100 pages of the book, Ernst Malmsten was really rubbing me the wrong way. I was only able to read five or ten pages at a time before the eye-rolling got painful enough that I had to put it down. So self-congratulatory about what a big success he was at organizing his poetry festival! I was afraid I wasn't going to make it all the way to the end of the book. The only thing that kept me hanging on through the early parts was the revelation that Ernst had been dating his partner-in-crime, Kajsa Leander, and then they decided that they were more brother/sister than boyfriend/girlfriend, and not only did they remain friends, but they were also still able to work together. I find that heartwarming. Most people aren't capable of reining in their egos that well. Given what had come before I was expecting Ernst to tell us what a big man he was for handling the situation so well, but it never came. The subject of the protagonists having once dated was never again mentioned for the entire length of the book, which is exactly as it should be.

Ernst and Kajsa started their first internet company together, bokus, largely with money from VCs. They felt they'd lost control very early on so they decided to sell out and do something else. They'd made a lot of money from that venture so they could afford to be more picky the next time around. They decided they wanted an investment bank behind them this time. That's not something banks often do however, so it took them awhile to find one. When they managed to persuade J.P. Morgan that their online fashion/sports apparel idea would work, the book began to interest me. Then they got an office, and started hiring people, and raising money. Ernst no longer felt the need to pat himself on the back quite so hard, perhaps because he realized the story was interesting enough without it. When they started opening offices in major European countries, I was hooked. I read the last three-fourths of the book in one 16-hour sitting.

So, here they are starting a company that will sell fashion and sports apparel on the web. You'd think the company website would loom fairly large in the founders' minds, wouldn't you? It did not. Ernst mentions at one point that he has little to no interest in computers. His first instinct was to outsource the entire site, although it didn't end up that way. They spend all their time raising money and talking to banks and hiring people and doing magazine interviews and "positioning the brand" and thinking about Miss Boo and opening offices and so on. I can't find it at the moment, but Ernst begins one section of the book with words to the effect of "There was just one little problem: technology." I had a vision of Ernst waking up one day, smacking himself in the forehead, saying "Oh yeah, I totally forgot! We need a website! Dang, we better get one of those right away!"

When he can't ignore the situation any longer, he discovers that the "technical aspects" of the company are all, like, messed up and stuff. Whoa! What a surprise! I was expecting a hip, trendy website to spring up out of thin air! And apparently, so was he! Malmsten decides to fire his CTO as soon as he can find a replacement and postpones the launch date. Long enough for the formerly doting fashion mags to turn on him.

The company brings in an outside consulting firm, Viant, which gives them nothing but bad news. Ernst has so little idea about what's going on technically that he doesn't know if they're telling him the truth or not. The consultants discover that the website code is spaghetti-fied and slow, so they take the easy way out: throw hardware at the problem. A million pounds sterling for new servers. Still not fast enough. So they buy a huge 64-processor Sun Starfire for 1.3 million pounds. Ernst: "When James showed me a photograph of the monster, I was astonished that you could transport it by air. Sprouting industrial-strength cables on all sides, the hunk of metal seemed to be a throwback to that age before the PC when computers were giant contraptions that you could walk inside." They spent so much money on Sun equipment that they got a personal visit from Ed Zander, Sun's president at the time.

They finally made a public launch of the website but it was still suck-worthy. This is the point at which the book started making me physically ill, purely out of sympathy. Somewhere along the line I'd mentally put myself in that company, and I am a programmer, and I cannot code without my ego getting VERY involved in my work. So I can imagine all too well what that was like, had I been in the middle of it. The panic that would have turned my guts to water. The vision of the near-future I'd have, knowing that I was going to see nothing but the inside of that office for seemingly forever.

I visited www.boo.com myself, once. Only once. This was likely some time in late 1999. Many of us in the tech biz had access to a T1 at work, but I had a measly dial-up connection at home, as did everybody else I knew. DSL and cable modems were as yet unheard of. Trying to get the boo.com homepage to load on my late-model Pentium was embarrasingly, freakishly slow. The most unusable big-budget site I've ever encountered before or since. The articles I read at the time about boo.com made them out to be a laughingstock, having burned through more than 100 million with nothing to show for it but this arrogant website with their flippant mascot, Miss Boo, who inspired nothing but a fervent desire to shut her up. The tech zines were predicting a spectacular cratering and I wasn't a bit surprised when that came to pass. Having heard Ernst's side of the story, I no longer think they were being intentionally arrogant. Just monumentally misguided. Conventional wisdom says that, during the dot.com bubble, anybody with a good pitch could raise millions to start a company, and here's your proof.

Authors who write book-length accounts often can't help but give themselves away. Many times I've come away from such accounts thinking the author a dolt, without even having heard anybody else's version of the story. This time, I felt that Ernst was not a bad guy, but that he was in way over his head and didn't know it. Usually in these sorts of stories, one of the investors will emerge as the champion of wisdom, guiding the young, hard-working but green CEO out of harm's way. Where was Malmsten's John Doerr? He seems not to have had one, and his company suffered for it. boo.com was far too ambitious, they tried to do way too much, too soon.

The situation goes from rosy and optimistic to near-insolvency in the blink of an eye. One minute they're turning away investors because they've already got so much money that they're afraid of diluting the value of the company and the next they can't get arrested. Their IPO, once a certainty, gets postponed. They put off payments to suppliers. Malmsten doesn't mention it in his book, but accounts I've read on the web claim employees and contractors weren't always getting paid.

One final desperate attempt to raise 20 million bucks fails, and the book abruptly ends, right when the liquidators take over. KPMG commandeers boo.com and rules it with an iron fist. I'm sure they had no choice. A more sympathetic approach would mean the situation would quickly get out of hand. From a schadenfreude standpoint, the juiciest part of the book could have come after that, and I was sorry Malmsten didn't write about it. All we get is that the once high-flying CEO is told what he can and can't say to his own (former) employees, which must have been quite a rude shock.

I was left feeling unsatisfied by the abrupt end of the story. I wanted to know more. I pieced together my own "story past the end of the story" via web queries. This is not from the point of view of an insider, so it's not nearly as good as if Malmsten had written it himself, but it's the best I could do, which I'll present for you now.

Near the end of the book, Malmsten mentions that it has occurred to him that what's he's built is really two companies. The first is the back-end services, the servers, currency conversion, warehouses, and so on, that amount to an internet-enabled global order-fulfillment system. The second is boo.com the brand, the identity, the style, the trademarks, Miss Boo, and so on. It's a strategic point, since one way to dig his company out of the hole they were in might have been to let other companies, similar to boo-the-brand, ride atop the other company, boo-the-internet-plumbing. This point was not lost on the liquidators. The company was split along just those lines and sold as two separate entities.

At the time of its demise, I think boo.com employed about 300 people, down from a peak of 400 after a round of lay-offs. The figures are subject to some debate, depending on which website you believe. Headhunters set up shop in the Midas Touch, a local bar where many of boo.com's employees hung out, and from what I've read, they seem to have had no trouble getting new jobs. The dot.com bubble hadn't quite burst at that point.

A company called Bright Station paid 250,000 pounds for the company's technology and offered jobs to all boo.com staff in technical positions, a total of 66 employees. "We're offering jobs to all of them," someone at Bright Station is quoted as saying. "We're not cherry-picking!" A heartening thought, given the fact that I didn't make the cut in a cherry-picking round is exactly how I lost my last job. I didn't want to work at the new company that bought my old company anyway. But that's a story for another day. Bright Station seems to have ended up with all the Sun hardware as well.

Fashionmall.com bought boo.com's domain name, trademarks, and content, including Miss Boo, for 400,000 pounds, according to one report. They re-launched the site much less ambitiously a few months later. This time boo.com didn't sell anything directly, it merely led customers to the sites of other retailers. I can't imagine that it was a very successful strategy. Today, boo.com redirects to fashionmall.com, so that's the end of that.

On the whole, I thought it was a very good book. It reminded me of my own experiences working at start-up-like companies. I don't get the feeling that Malmsten was pulling punches to make himself or others around him look better. Far from it, I can't imagine that very many people in the book are happy with their portrayals.

One potential investor, one of the few who looked very closely at boo.com's projected numbers, found the whole idea absurd. He guessed the company would be out of business by Christmas 1999. His prediction proved to be not very far wrong. Malmsten lets that potential investor have his say in the book, where an author with a bigger ego wouldn't have.

Malmsten is very good at maintaining suspense. Many times a company profiled in a book of this type will spend countless hours and dollars on something, only to have it turn out to be a complete waste of time, so that subject will get short shrift in the retelling. The author gives himself the benefit of hindsight, robbing the story of its freshness. The astute reader can soon predict what paths will and won't be successful for the company, based solely on the way the author introduces them. This is not a trap Malmsten falls into. His book expends as many words on the dead ends as anything else, and he sounds just as excited about them in the book as he must have been at the time, before he knew that they would prove to be fruitless.

In my opinion, the gold standard of tech histories is Steven Levy's "Hackers." Malmsten's book is of course nowhere near as good as that. I don't think any book ever will be. But it might be half as good, 0.5 on the Hackers scale if you will, which is high praise indeed, coming from me.

At the time of its flameout, boo.com was considered to be the prototypical bad example, a textbook case of how not to run a dot.com. Given the outcome, it's hard to disagree. But I don't think that tells the whole story. Failures are often more important than successes, in terms of learning lessons. Whatever else you might say about Malmsten and his cofounders, you sure can't accuse them of a lack of ambition. It's heartening to see someone striving so hard to live up to his own potential, an example I wish I could follow myself. In my mind, one big bright white-hot flame-out is worth a thousand mediocre lukewarm successes.
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