If you've ever gone out to lunch with a coworker and suddenly found yourself witness to a savage stream of unflattering assessments of bosses, wicked gossip, and the-emperor-has-no-clothes analysis of your industry, you'll know what it's like to read High Stakes, No Prisoners. Ferguson, an MIT Ph.D., started up a company called Vermeer Technologies in 1994, a rough time for startups in Silicon Valley. The country was coming out of a recession, the stock market was stagnant, and the Internet wasn't yet taken seriously by those with money to invest. Vermeer had a software program called FrontPage that only someone who understood the coming power of the Net could appreciate. Even in Silicon Valley, few were so prescient.
Most of High Stakes is the story of Vermeer, from its startup to its sale to Microsoft. (Now bundled with Microsoft Office, FrontPage is used by more than 3 million people worldwide.) Along the way, Ferguson met the players in the Valley and formed strong opinions of them. He describes Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale as an egomaniac and technological dolt in way, way over his head. Oracle founder Larry Ellison is "severely warped." One of his best lines sums up Silicon Valley as a place where "one finds little evidence that the meek shall inherit the earth."
But this isn't just the technological equivalent of WWF trash-talking. Ferguson is very tough on himself, too, and details his own shortcomings as a person and a businessman. Mostly, it's a gloves-off account of how things really get done in high technology today, as refreshingly honest and acerbic an account as you'll ever read. --Lou Schuler
From Publishers Weekly
All the characters readers would expect to find in a "behind the scenes" look at what it's like to build and then sell one of the first Internet-related companies are present and fully accounted for in this first-hand account, written by a coauthor of Computer Wars. We see the venture capitalists who are out to maximize their return on investment in the fledgling company at the entrepreneur's expense, the voracious large competitors who threaten to crush it like a bug and the stumbling support professionalsAeveryone from lawyers to headhuntersAwho often turn out to be more of a hindrance than a help. Ferguson tells what it was like to create Vermeer Technologies, which produced one of the first software products that made creating Web pages fairly easy, and then sell it to Microsoft for $133 million some 20 months later. While the account is richly detailed, Ferguson's tone is smug and his attitude toward a great many of the people he describes travels the short arc between patronizing and dismissive. The story of Vermeer's creation is bracketed by an overview of the high-tech industry, clearly showing that Ferguson has an interesting view of the issuesAboth great and smallAraised by the remarkable growth of the Internet. It's a shame that he didn't give us more perspectiveAand less invectiveAon the travails associated with building his company. (Nov.) FYI: The author will donate his earnings from this book to a nonprofit educational organization.
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