Washington Post columnist Shannon Henry was online to discuss her final Download column. Henry has been covering the local technology scene since 1995, documenting the successes and failures of local tech companies, and the culture and ideas of local business personalities.
In her book, "The Dinner Club: How the Masters of the Internet Universe Rode the Rise and Fall of the Greatest Boom in History," she followed a group of wealthy investors from the Washington region who joined together during the technology boom to invest in the next generation of start-ups.
A transcript follows.
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Shannon, thanks for joining us. What are your main thoughts when you look back over the past several years of writing about the local tech community in The Download column?
Shannon Henry: Hi everyone. Thanks for coming to the farewell Live Online. I'll miss doing the column but it's been 10 years (!) since I started covering local tech and time to do something new. In Washington circa 1995, there was no real tech community linking entrepreneurs, very few sources of venture capital, and and not that much "experience" in commercial technology success or failure. Now there's all that. Those who launched companies will start new ones, there's more money to be had and there is a real network of people who help each other do business. But that's not to say the hardest part is over. The biggest challenges today are finding new ideas and keeping successful companies going strong by taking on new risks.
From your point of view, what has been some of the winning strategies behind the most successful small businesses and survivors in the area of IT?
Shannon Henry: Absolute conviction and passion that the company is doing great work that isn't being done elsewhere. There really is something in the attitude of success. The ability to notice the potential of a market before anyone else. A great network of real friends and people who can give advice, support and sometimes money. Timing and luck, though successful people make their own luck. Being smart enough (for the CEO) to admit when he or she is not the person to keep running the company, and the ability to spot talented employees and hire them.
What is your next endeavor?
Shannon Henry: I'm working on a second book. Of course everything has a tech angle, but this isn't a tech book. It's about motherhood.
Have you thought about starting your own company? Shannon Entrepreneur Henry, has a nice ring!
Shannon Henry: Interesting idea! Actually both being an author and a mom feel entrepreneurial to me.
Now that tech has gone bust and boomed again, which companies do you consider to be tomorrow's leaders of the Washington region technology sector?
Shannon Henry: I'd like to say I see a strong next generation to follow the Proxicom, OTG, Landmark, MCI, Nextel, UUNet, etc. type companies that were (or are now) merging and becoming divisions of larger firms, but there aren't as many as I expected. Some of the alums of those companies are ones to watch. I mentioned in today's column an interest in watching the digital operations of the large content companies in the area. Wireless firms, too, will have a shot.
Where should I be dining next Monday to catch the inside story on the next big thing?
Shannon Henry: Ah, an inside joke about my first book. The group is still meeting but I haven't been in a long while and I hear they are incredibly happy to be meeting without a reporter around.
Do you keep up with the Dinner Club investors, and if so, what are they up to these days?
Shannon Henry: They're still meeting, though without me (they are happy to say, as I mentioned earlier). There are 25 people, so 25 where are they now stories. Many of them have moved on to other things. Steve Case is running some kind of vacation time share company. John Sidgmore, sadly, died. Mark Warner is governor of Virginia. Raul Fernandez is CEO of a security company called Object Video. Michael Saylor is still CEO of MicroStrategy, though he has become much quieter when it comes to talking about the company in public or to the press.
When you look back at all the stuff you wrote during the boom years, do you ever wish you could take any of it back?
Shannon Henry: What a great question. I've done a year-end predictions column most years and try to remind myself of what I spotted and missed. I've not always been right, of course. I would have bet against AOL (a walled service?) and for Cybercash (if any of you remember that name) in the early days. I wish I would have done an earlier column predicting the fall--wouldn't that have been prescient? But I think I captured what was going on and the craziness of it all the way it was.
Seems like it's time for the Post to file a new chapter in the Microstrategy story. There was the company (and Saylor's) meteoric rise, then the accounting scandal, and now the company is strong again. I promise I'm not a Microstrat flack, just a reader who'd like to read about their rise from the ashes....
Shannon Henry: You're right. The company is now making real (!) profits. It's got an interesting product and should not be ignored. I wish the CEO would start talking to reporters again, but regardless it's time to check in.
Shannon -- what was the biggest surprise on the local tech scene in the years you covered it? Rise and fall of WebMethods? Aether Systems? Nextel's emergence as major wireless provider? AOL's long slide?
Shannon Henry: Honestly, it was when AOL bought Time Warner. Everything had gotten crazy, for sure, but this just didn't make sense. It's easier to say that now, of course, but it's one of those moments when I remember saying "My God."
Because you saw the tech boom from its infancy to its collapse starting in 2000, there is one obvious question: was there one single moment when you realized, "Uh oh, this is all going to come tumbling down?" Thanks.
Shannon Henry: For me it was MicroStrategy's accounting scandal. It just struck a nerve that people (reporters, governments, investors) were going to start looking deeper into these companies, and unfortunately what they might find could really destroy a lot of great work and people's savings.
What are your thoughts on the current security of the Internet? How vulnerable is it to an organized attack from a terrorist group or some high tech hackers? What are the laws should financial accounts be hacked into: are our investments insured or at we at potentially serious risk should hackers get into them and move the funds to an unknown place, or to a country with which we have no diplomatic ties?
Shannon Henry: Yes, everything is vulnerable, both to terrorists and to teenagers with too much time on their hands. I personally find it frightening. We should all know the extents to which our accounts are protected.
Falls Church, Va.:
Shannon, do you think we have a real tech community in the Washington area or a classic military-industrial complex which is fed by military and related government spending?
Shannon Henry: Sure, this is a government town and it always will be. That's actually good for tech in some ways--the government is a solid, high-paying customer. But there's been enough commercial success here now to say the area is also a true player in technology. What will be interesting to see is if some of the government technologies (remember the origin of the Internet) get transferred to the commercial sector. It's not always easy, as govt. and commercial mentalities, financial years, time schedules, etc. are so different.
What do you think the tech industry will look like when your child is 21? What will we all be racing to have/do/demonstrate as a competency? Any predictions?
Shannon Henry: Wow, that's interesting to think about. I think tech will be such a seamless part of our lives that it will be hard to distinguish it from anything else. I worry sometimes that we will become too "always on" with pods, blogs, crackberries, etc. There may be a tech backlash to all that.
Cubicle City, Washington, DC:
Shannon -- Congratulations on your next endeavor, though I think your readers will miss you. You've done a great job keeping us non-tech, non-business types informed.
No, this is not your child/Dad/husband/brother/old high school flame writing.
Shannon Henry: Hey, thanks. I'll miss you all too.
Buried deep in your "Dinner Club" book was the fact that as of 2002, the club had yet to make one penny off of their many investments. It's 2005 now -- has the club made any money yet?
Shannon Henry: Good point. Hope it wasn't too buried;-)Many of the club's first investments have entirely gone bust. However, they did make money through the sale of Matrics, an RFID company. Some of the other companies they invested in, such as Websurveyor and Core Communications, are still around and doing interesting things.
I have heard very little about high tech in recent years. I work in the industry as a web developer but I have seen very little coverage in the media as of late. What do you think has happened to the industry, has it gone underground, has it been under reported in the media. How is tech in the Dulles Corridor. What about small innovative internet companies in the area, are there many stories out there regarding these companies.
Shannon Henry: Oh dear. We're still covering it, but I agree local tech has not been on the front pages or even the front of the Business section as much as it used to be. In part, that's because the moment we are now in is not as exciting as the boom or the bust. That's sure to change, and there are thousands of stories out there. I do think execs these days are quieter as they are percolating new ideas. That means we need to work harder to discover them. There's also the theory that tech is so part of everything that you may not even realize you're reading a "tech" story in Metro, Style, etc.
Shannon Henry: Thanks to everyone for the great, thoughtful questions. We've had some fun conversations. Goodbye!