While many people would prefer to forget the silly companies and capital excesses of the late '90s, David Kirsch makes a case for remembering.
Kirsch, an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, this week launches an online archive of business plans, PowerPoint presentations, internal e-mails and other artifacts of the Gilded Age. When complete, it will be a searchable, multimedia account of the boom-and-bust years.
Historians will be able to look back 200 years from now and read the original proposal for Boo.com or Kozmo.com or eToys.com and hear audio histories from executives and worker bees from the companies. Ideally, future students and business leaders will learn something from the mistakes that were made.
Kirsch came up with the idea after teaching entrepreneurship at University of California at Los Angeles and at Maryland, all the while struggling to understand why technology companies flew or fell. He worried that if someone didn't begin an organized effort to gather documents and recollections, the era would fall victim to revisionist history, and information would be destroyed as hard drives were reformatted.
"All this stuff is going to disappear," Kirsch laments.
He was also wary of the slew of books on the subject, many of which have a particular point of view or focus on a single company. "Everybody's trying to control the narrative of what happened," Kirsch says. He especially feels that dot-com refugees and the less-than-famous won't otherwise have their stories told. "Larry Ellison is the subject of 50 books and Bill Gates 50 more," he says.
In January, Kirsch received a three-year, $300,500 grant for this project from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. He began doing interviews and collecting raw material in 2000. "I was interested in studying failure," he says.
Kirsch partnered with Webmergers.com, a research firm in San Francisco that analyzes information on technology-company mergers and shutdowns. He tried to pick the brain of Philip Kaplan, who created a Web site to track failed companies, but, he says, Kaplan hung up on him. That's okay, says Kirsch, because Kaplan's site is mere hearsay.
The first incarnation of Kirsch's archive, consisting mostly of business plans, will be available at www.businessplanarchive.org. It will eventually move to www.creativedestruction.org, complete with oral histories, interviews and all sorts of documents. Kirsch says he'll strike traditional archiving deals with donors, like agreeing to hold their information for five years, or until they die.
Kirsch sees why rumor sites are easier to run. He's already discovered the problem that journalists often face with people who offer their information and then try to take back their words afterward. He's also finding that some subjects shy away from questioning that sounds too much like Internet "ambulance chasing" -- those for whom the pain is still too new.