on November 17, 2001
I signed on as an executive with Value America at the IPO and stayed until I was laid off on the day the company declared bankruptcy. After more than a year, the memories of that experience are still quite vivid.
I thoroughly enjoyed David Kuo's writing style and think he has done a terrific job of capturing what truly was a ".Bomb". While a couple things might not be exactly correct, I don't recall a single material inaccuracy. Particularly accurate are his portrayals of Craig Winn and Glenda Dorchak. ".Bomb" is both entertaining and insightful. I highly recommend it.
on October 29, 2001
A wonderful book, written with humor and sadness. Humor stems from the author's style and the now-apparent, foolish ambition of Craig Winn and his Value America colleagues. Winn wasn't alone, and maybe 'ambition' is too kind. "Arrogance" might be a better term, shared by a lot of egomaniacs posing as entrepreneurs, launching dot.coms in the late 1990s. Sadness, because it would have been such a nice story if the tulip mania bubble didn't burst, and all of us were today equally drunk with wealth from these new economy firms.
Strangely, some of this reads like ancient history. Value America came and went so fast, determined to be the marketplace for the new millenium, the web site for everybody, satisfying shoppers' seven 'needs', doing four important functions perfectly, and never holding any inventory. First hints of the real mess they did have in inventory postponed their original IPO in 1998, only to see Value America rush right back into the IPO market in April 1999, with visions of billions of dollars in stock value at a time when $30 million in quarterly sales (along with millions more in losses) constituted their entire revenue stream. And most of that business was over the phone!
Winn comes across as a man easily impressed by himself. Within months of initial signs of success, he has his gubernatorial campaign laid out and his plans to be president by 2008 are going full steam ahead. From brief conversations with Henry Kissinger and Bill Bennett, Winn thinks he has a campaign advisory team. And all the time Winn ignores the fact that his business model is not working, his basic assumptions are incorrect, and his disbelief as to his naysayers is misplaced.
The concept was simple, elegant and very marketable to the venture capitalists convinced that they only had to be right one in twenty times and they'd still come out rich. Only the seductive pitch lacked details, specifics, and good-old-fashioned business sense. Welcome to "due diligence".
A must read for those who are all-too-quickly forgetting the hard e-commerce lessons learned from 1998 to 2000.
on November 14, 2001
I was a "Value American" and thoroughly enjoyed this book (though I had a few panicked flashbacks while reading it!). Kuo accurately depicts the personalities involved in this company--especially Craig Winn's (Upon my second meeting with Winn, I knew something was wrong with him--that he was not to be trusted--I probably should have listened to my instincts, but I stayed, inspired by many other people--such as CEO Tom Morgan. Kuo's depiction of Morgan as a smart, stand-up guy is right on.)
Though the drama that unfolds in Kuo's book may seem unreal, I assure you it wasn't. Kuo captured the eccentricities of senior management, as well as the electricity of the staff--everyone was family there--everyone was excited to work for VA.com and was dedicated to the vision, which makes its failure even more heartbreaking.
Kuo does a great job of explaining the traps that senior management fell into... the supposed "new rules" for dotcoms on reporting financials to the investor community... the risks posed to a company run by an egomaniac with no common sense... and the battles and alliances among senior staff that changed on a daily basis.
Kuo's book is a fun, wild ride--better than fiction. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the "new" economy... as well as any MBA students and profs, who may themselves have big ideas about starting a "new new thing." There are many lessons to be learned here. Enjoy.
on October 17, 2001
Although it seems the Internet craze is a world away, this is a terrific page-turner, and great story to escape into. It does give great business insight and background, very cool behind the scenes workings of the Internet (for all those of us who weren't inside, but just played the stock market). It's extremely well written, fast-paced, funny, with great characters that leave you eager to see what crazy things they'll do next!!! Given the market today, and stock/economy decisions we still face, there's enough education in here to make it a must read. enjoy!
on November 22, 2001
As a former long-time resident of Charlottesville, I'm all too familiar with the rise & fall of the area's only billion+ $ net venture. So it was very interesting to get an insider's look at Value America through David Kuo's eyes.
First and foremost, this is a case study of a fast-moving dot.com with a "flexible" business plan. Value America was heralded for its inventory-less business plan, but eventually the major flaws in the model were revealed, especially on the B2C side. This book provides mostly cautionary tales. It describes the infighting and power struggles among the executives. It details the inability of the CEO to rein in the founder Craig Winn, the "visionary" promise-now/deliver-later salesman. And it touches on the operational failures that led to thousands of delayed orders and a general technology break down. Because Kuo was in PR and bus dev, we don't get an in-depth look at the information technology infrastructure, supposedly the crown-jewel of this company's assets. Instead we see the excessive and sometimes irresponsible deal-making that occured with little executive knowledge of the technological requirements.
It is an entertaining book that depicts how a company can blow through hundreds of millions of dollars that result in little salvageable value. Like the "startup.com" movie, dot.bomb also shows the emotional fallout at the executive level.
on October 27, 2001
Dot Bomb chronicles the rise and fall of Value America, an internet retailer that went public in April 1999. The book starts in the middle: Kuo joined the company as an employee a month after its IPO, so his summary of pre-IPO events is quite condensed and incomplete (if my dot-com experiences are any guide, the pre-IPO times may have been more chaotic). Clearly, much of Kuo's reporting about the first and last days of Value America comes from interviews with fellow Value America employees and investors, and I suspect the book lacks some perspective due to the apparent exclusion of input from anyone technical.
The book is extremely readable, perhaps the best-written non-fiction book I've read this year.
Of course, I am biased: I have worked as a consultant for several dot-com startups over the past few years, and much of what I read sounded extremely familiar. I shook my head with understanding, and felt like a fellow insider, as I read about the absurd pressures that came from the artificial "internet economics" in which the experts claimed that capturing "revenue" or "customers" was more important than even a remote prospect of profitable operations.
Kuo's book isn't just fascinating because of what it says about the dot-com craze and the irrational market forces that fueled irrational and schizophrenic actions by companies. It's also a fascinating tale of a charismatic company founder whose greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses. It's an insightful tale of human relationships in which people can't tell ugly truths to their friends.
As I mentioned, Kuo is an excellent writer (or else has help from excellent editors). I read the entire book in a single afternoon and evening.
Anyone who has experienced the "dot-com" and "dot-bomb" business world should enjoy this book. Those who mocked the rise and fall of the dot-com culture will find the book quite validating. Even dot-com millionaires will likely still enjoy reading the book.
And in the end, anyone who plans to start a business -- on the internet or on Main Street -- should read this book; at the end of each page, ask yourself, "is this me?"
on May 8, 2002
dot.bomb: My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath is David Kuo's first-person account of his tenure at Value America. Kuo's role at Value America was that of Director of Corporate Communications, also known as mouthpiece to the chairman. Value America was an early Internet retailer that crashed and burned quite quickly after its IPO in early 1999. The story of Value America is inherently the story of its founder and chairman, Craig Winn. Winn was the typical big vision salesman, one who could talk and impress people about the big picture, but couldn't execute things effectively. Although Winn saw the potential of the Internet to transform all areas of commerce, especially the retail sector, his visions of greatness and riches never took flight.
Winn's mistake (of which there are many) was that he got caught up in his own hubris. The sad part of the Value America debacle is that it really did have a chance to do something big -- really big. But, as Kuo details in chapter after chapter, it was Winn who often got in the way of the company's ability to achieve its true potential. Kuo is a former political speech writer, and his sometime self-deprecating writing style is engaging and humorous, making the book difficult to put down.
The book starts with Kuo's arrival at Value America, and in just a few pages, we see that Value America had all of the trappings that ensured the demise of most dot.coms; hype, overpaid management who are detached from reality, executive jets, inconsistent and constantly changing strategies, lying and cheating, executive hubris, and a long list of unsatisfied customers. Ultimately, it was the overpowering and unbending personality
of Craig Winn that brought the company down. In deference to Winn, it was much more than just his personality that brought down Value America; however, his personality, which was one of his greatest assets, was also his biggest detriment.
Craig Winn was one part businessman and one part preacher. His close ties with Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed, as the book details, are no coincidence. Winn's ultimate vision was not just to create a multi-billion dollar company; he also set his sites on both the Governorship of Virginia and, ultimately, the United States presidency. Winn based his presidential aspirations on his meeting and conversations -- which were quite brief
-- with personalities such as William Bennett and Henry Kissinger. (I once met Ray Manzarek, keyboardist for the Doors, in a Los Angeles supermarket, but I left my aspirations for rock and roll stardom in aisle 5. Perhaps if Winn would have done the same, and stayed in touch with reality, he might have been more than a momentary paper billionaire.)
As with any book written by an insider, one has to keep in mind the subjective nature of Kuo's narrative. Nonetheless, as someone who has worked internally and as a consultant at several dot.com startups, I found that much of the book sounded familiar and believable.
Although the story of Value America is somewhat dated in Internet time, it still is a fascinating read of how something so right could go so wrong.
on October 17, 2001
I recommend "Dot Bomb: My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath" without reservation. What makes this book so special is that the reader fits snugly into the storyteller's perspective. For the same reason that I respond to Michael Lewis' books, the author manages to be the only person in the room with an ounce of common sense as people and events spin wildly out of control and challenge assumptions of the way the business world is supposed to work. The entire story is told with refreshingly blunt honesty and self effacement and every moment in it is absolutely laugh out loud hilarious. Kuo's description of the company's founder, CEO and Chairman Craig Wynn is next level fantastic. I was simultaneously annoyed and admiring of Wynn (very much like my feelings for Hollywood actors). I admired how he followed his visions, dreams and ambition, but was also annoyed that he got so rich doing it since his ideas ended up being so hollow and unsound. (This book also reminded me of the movie "Being There" with Peter Sellers).
It is a much a book about human behavior as it is about business. It is a wild ride that was told with such humor that I was sorry it had to end. You will love every minute of it. A great story.
on January 8, 2002
David Kuo's chronicle of a dot com's downfall is more biography than expose. Value America was the brainchild of Craig Winn, one of those American original megalomaniacs intent on changing the world. A manufacturer's rep with a volatile record of success, Winn was an early convert to the web, sensing its potential to transform the retailing landscape and revolutionize the way goods are bought, sold and distributed.
With the charisma of a born-again preacher Winn converted the non-believers, recruiting some close associates to set up a shoestring operation in Charlottesville Va. The story of Value America's birth mirrors that of so many start ups of the time, with employees whipping themselves into a working frenzy over the promise of stock option riches. But at Value America, as David Kuo so skillfully tells the tale, it wasn't just greed that drove the converts on to their perceived glorious destiny. More than anything, it was the overpowering and mesmerizing personality of Craig Winn himself.
Kuo does a neat job of setting the story up with the blow by blow accounts of which relationships led to which rounds of financing, and how Winn found his way, through ingenuity and old-fashioned salesmanship, into the top echelons of the new economy elite. One has the sense that the author wished he'd been there during those heady early days. By his own account he certainly had no idea what he was in for when he came aboard in 1999 as Value America's VP of Public Relations from his background in politics and non-profit.
By then the received wisdom was that Value America was on its way to greatness. Already the much awaited IPO had gone through, mega-deals with Fed Ex and Citigroup loomed just over the horizon, and Value America's office campus and fleet of jets were on order. Kuo bought into Craig Winn's world with the fervor of a new disciple. His worship of the great leader comes through again and again, even as Winn evades, misleads, and outright lies when dealing with Wall St., the public, and his own oh-so-cherished employees.
Of course, it all ends badly, but with oddly few recriminations. Everyone involved in the drama at Value America comes away with the notion that they have participated in something big, if not exactly real. The only players in the drama who seem to have walked away completely unscathed were, interestingly, the religious leaders like Jerry Fallwell and Ralph Reed, whom Winn recruited to give credibility to his demi-god status and bankability to his quixotic mission to run for president.
It's all very confusing how rational people end up as raving fantasists at the hands of a snake oil charmer. The most nerve wracking aspect of the tale is the huge scale of deception that swirled among the large group of ostensibly savvy people. Kuo does an admirable job of shedding light on the story, at the end equating his own fate as that of a Yukon goldminer who, lucky to have survived the harsh Arctic winter, has emerged broke but alive to tell the tale.
on October 24, 2001
Dot.bomb has it all: a great plot, amazing characters, jaw-dropping twists and some real insights into the Internet Age -- and it's a true story, written by an insider who also happens to be a gifted storyteller. I can't recommend it more highly.
It's a cliche, but I really wasn't able to put this book down. It describes the rise and fall of Value America at a galloping pace that conveys the headlong vertigo of the dot.com gold rush. Its heroes and villains are so much larger than life it's hard to believe they're real people. But Kuo not only has an ear for telling anecdotes and convincing personal details, but an obvious empathy for all of the people he worked with -- including Value America's chairman, a megalomaniac with a heart of gold. Kuo is also refreshingly honest about his own role in this techno-tragicomedy.
The book reads like a combination of Douglas Coupland ("Generation X"), Michael Lewis ("The New New Thing") and Joe Klein ("Primary Colors"). That makes it a riveting read, laugh-out-loud funny, lightly introspective and keenly astute about the intensely political nature of building a business.
Kuo's you-are-there perspective adds extra punch to his surprising conclusion: while you can't believe the hype about the Internet, it really is going to change the world.
When I first picked this book up, I wasn't sure what to expect, or whether I would enjoy reading it given what's happening in the world today. I was pleasantly surprised on both counts. Dot.bomb is both a welcome diversion from today's headlines and a reminder of the positive potential tomorrow holds.