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Dot-Com Business Plan Archive

David Kirsch
Professor, University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business
Thursday, October 28, 2004; 12:00 PM

David Kirsch was online to talk about research at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business to preserve records from the dot-com era of the late 1990s. The school recently said it received an award from the from the Library of Congress to strengthen a two-year-old initiative called the Business Plan Archive. The web portal contain business plans, marketing plans, technical plans, venture presentations and other business documents from more than 2,000 Internet start-ups.

See also: "U-Md. Professor Archives History Of Dot-Com Bombs" (Post, Oct. 28).


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A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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washingtonpost.com: David, thanks for joining us. How did the Business Plan Archive come to life?

David Kirsch: Well, first, I should admit that I was pretty taken in by the whole Dot Com phenomenon. After it fell apart, I starting wondering what had happened to me? How had I followed so blindly down that path? As a trained historian, I had spent almost a decade studying the earliest history of the automobile industry, the late 1890s and early 1900s. I saw some strong parallels between the 1890s and the 1990s with one important difference: the failed auto companies of the 1890s left paper records that I was able to locate and read 100 years later. The historian of 2100 looking back at the 1990s may not be so lucky. So I decided to try to save some of the materials that those future historians will need to understand what happened during this most remarkable period, partly for the them and partly to satisfy my own need to know.

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Oak Hill, Va.: What about the companies that have succeeded? Will you collect any information about them, or is it only companies that have failed miserably? Additionally, what about the new dot-coms, granted they are few, but will you continue to archive the companies that are started today?

David Kirsch: Sure; I am very interested in the companies that succeeded. But I'm not worried about their records disappearing. eBay, Yahoo!, Monster are all out there making history every day and recording it in their corporate archives. Those records are going to be very important, but they can wait. The records of the failures need to be grabbed now, or else they'll be lost. As for newer Dot Coms, yes, I am interested, but it's a different ball game now, as we all know. Part of what was so fascinating about the pre-bust era is the culture in which those events took place.

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Bethesda, Md.: What was the wackiest dot-com business plan you read?

David Kirsch: That's a hard one. There are different kinds of wacky. People have lots of wacky ideas; what's so fascinating to me about the Dot Com era is that so many wacky ideas got funded. My favorite one in the archive is "thatnew.com" a business founded on a gag, like an Abbott and Costello routine.

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Washington, D.C.: I was browsing through your business plan archive, and I wondered how you came up with such a large group of plans. Where did they all come from?

David Kirsch: They come from lot of different sources; some were submitted by single entrepreneurs who wanted to make sure that their efforts were remembered. Others came in large slugs from investors who wanted to clear out their files. There are hundreds more in my office still waiting to be cataloged, but we're doing the best we can.

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Arlington, Va.: Are you afraid that some of the (worst) dot-com plans might already be lost as people move on to other ventures?

David Kirsch: Sure; my own sense is that we have somewhere around 5% of the companies that were "planned" to the business plan stage. All we can do is try to be fair and not exclude anything.

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Baltimore, Md.: Let's say I was employed by a dot-com firm that is now out of business. I have a bunch of files that I backed up when I worked from home - powerpoint presentations, marketing materials, etc. Is it legal for me to donate that stuff to your archive? Let's assume that the company that I worked is long gone.

David Kirsch: That's a good question. As any lawyer will tell you, "it depends." So far, I have not had to turn anything away because of legal concerns. What we've done is allow people to "seal" their contributions for as long as they feel is necessary. My thinking is that "time heals all wounds." In 2030 or 2050 or 2100, no one's going to care about how the materials survived, they're just going to marvel at them and say thanks to all of you who contributed. Does that help? If not, feel free to contact me offline, and I'll see if I can offer more specific advice.

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washingtonpost.com: David's email is dkirsch@umd.edu.

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Washington, D.C.: Dear David,

Please tell us more about your goals. Do you aim to build an archive for future historians? To develop business school case studies? It sounds like there's a great opportunity here for comparative tulipomanias research...

Also, what are you collecting, besides business plans?

David Kirsch: Yes, all of the above. In the past, business historians could wait for historical records to be discovered in the attic 50 years later. But 1s and 0s will not survive that way. So we need to get the "stuff of history" now, figure out how to save it, and then wait for it to become "history". And yes, I think there are great cases to be written and not just about the things that went wrong. As many of you know firsthand, there was a lot of genuinely creative thinking by smart, hard-working people who believed in what they were doing. I don't want to trivialize the reality of those dreams in any way. As for what I'm collecting, the answer is basically everything: email directories, powerpoints, found video from office parties, schwag, pictures of schwag. Whatever you think is important for capturing the spirit of the age. In that respect, it's a people's archive, not just mine.

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Baltimore: Are these documents copyrighted by their author? Did you have to contact each author for permission to put them in the Univ. of Md. archive?

Will all the plans you collect be available to any researcher working in the Univ. of Md.library?

David Kirsch: Yes, in theory. There are a whole host of problems relating to access; that's why if you go to the archive, there's a search function that allows you to select those documents that are accessible to the public. It's a big problem, one that I wish we didn't have to address, because I know there is a lot of interest, but the law's the law. That's also the reason for our recent partnership with the Library of Congress' National Digital Information Infrastructure Preservation Project (NDIIPP, what a mouthful!). The Library of Congress wants to help answer some of these general questions about public access to digital history. If you want to learn more about it, check out www.digitalpreservation.gov. It's your tax dollars at work, so thanks!

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Washington, D.C.: What are the significant themes or commonalties that resonate with the respondents?

David Kirsch: It's interesting; I hear very, very few regrets. Sure, every now and then, I'll hear some real horror story. But most people say that it was one of the most exciting times in their lives and that they wouldn't trade it for anything, even if it ultimately ended in failure. Now, that may be a little self-serving, in retrospect. But I think the spirit is true. Most people were catapulted into positions of authority and responsibility way above anything that they would have had in a traditional corporate setting. It was really exciting, on the way up and on the way down. But you tell me: go to the archive site, www.dotcomarchive.org, and let me know what YOU think.

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Washington, D.C.: I think this is a great initiative. All too often the history that is preserved is not that of the majority of the people, but of a small group (kings, industrialists, etc.). In other words, it is the estate that is preserved, not the factory and the neighborhood that defined the life of many more people. Besides contributing documents, is there any other way to help? Are you, for example, looking for volunteers?

David Kirsch: Thanks, and yes, history always needs volunteers. The best thing you can do is write your own story, history in the first person. simply sit down at your computer and write your own internet autobiography. Write as little or as much as you want. Tell me whatever you think I need to know about you and your experience. I don't have any preconceived notions about what you need to say. Obviously, the more contextual details you can provide (personal names, company names, dates, places, events, states of mind), the better both for me and for future scholars who will have even less general knowledge about the dot com world than I do. If you want a template, imagine that in the future, your grand-daughter - now a 1st year MBA student home for the holidays - asks "What did you do in the great dot com boom?" What would you want her to know? Tell it to her straight. Here's what I did. This is why I did it. I worked with these people. We competed against those people. Here's what worked, and here's what didn't. When you're done, save a copy for yourself, and send one to me (in whatever format you prefer). At that point, you can say, "That's it; I'm done." Or you might invite some former co-workers to do the same. Or you might send me some old files that you think capture your perspective on the era. You can participate as much or as little as you wish.

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Bethesda, Md.: I think the comparison of 1980 car companies with 1990 dot-coms, which were basing their business plans on the new computer systems and networks, is a great idea. There should be many similarities. I understand you are collecting business plans but are you also investigating how these companies were run? My experience at a dot-bomb was that it was started by techies and only near the end were any real management experts hired. As an example, I was employee number 254 of a company that reached 700+. The energy was high but I saw many people who had nothing to do. They were hired just to fill an eventual position. I should have known something was amiss when my boss, a co-founder, asked me to talk to everyone in the company and find out what they do and then draw up an organizational chart!

David Kirsch: You make a great point. It wasn't just about the ideas. A lot turned on execution, the ability to achieve what your plan says you are going to achieve. There were a lot of naive people who thought it was going to be easier than it turned out to be: growing a company is hard; growing it fast is harder still. Can I ask, is your company in the archive? If not, definitely add it. Thanks!

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Arlington, Va.: Washington, DC's own VarsityBooks.com aka Varsity Group was down to .06/share, now their CEO was invited to open the NASDAQ w/ their shares sitting at more than $6. Was this the most radical turnaround of the companies involved in the dot com bubble bust? and dang, I wish I spent $60 on 1000 shares 4 years ago!!

David Kirsch: would'a should'a could'a. Hindsight is always 20-20. Obviously, part of the motivation for building the archive is to help learn the lessons of the past so that future entrepreneurs, workers, investors and all of us can do just a little bit better next time. That may be too optimistic, but I hope we can at least make some new mistakes.

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Monterey, Calif.: I realize that you are collecting mostly business plans, which are optimistic by their very nature, but have you come across any files (after the business failed) that have expressed guilt or remorse for such irresponsible behavior?

Glen

David Kirsch: It's hard to know exactly what to look for. If you've got a "smoking gun" document that exposes a guilty party, I'm all ears, but so are the SEC and many jilted investors. Best to contribute it under seal for a while. There were definitely some bad apples, no doubt about that. The harder question is how to assign blame for some of the institutional circumstances that were allowed to persist. Why, for instance, did we permit "spinning" of shares by IPO underwriters? On the face of it, it's just an invitation for exploitation. We probably should have known better, but while the market was rising, there are no incentive for anyone to cry foul. That's probably part of the historical pattern of these types of things.

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Rockville, Md.: Are you interested in foreign business plans or experiences? I worked in an incubator in Peru for a year, made some plans myself, and was very close to the whole phenomenon in my country.

David Kirsch: Yes. The Dot Com era was an international phenomenon. It was not limited to the US. I have confined my collecting to the US, but that's more because it's what I know. We have received plans from Germany and England, so sure, let us know what happened in Peru?

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New York: Professor Kirsch,

What advice would you give to people required to make business plan presentations to investors? Does the content matter? Or, are the important things to dress properly and appear alert?

Jesse

David Kirsch: Hi Jesse, I think people should think of the business plan and its presentation as a very sophisticated "business card"; it's what you use to describe yourself and your planned venture. It needs to look and read well, but it's not a substitute for the person. Investors rarely fund plans; they fund people with plans. Hope that helps.

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Washington, D.C.: So having gathered all this material, do you have any fresh insight on why the bubble happened?

David Kirsch: Yes, but it's hard to pull together in a tiny text box. My own sense is that the "bust" is over-rated. There are lots of firms still going, many more than people might think. The typical Dot Com business plan was a good idea that someone, somewhere is probably working hard to implement even today. The hitch is that it's probably a $10 million dollar opportunity, not a $1 billion one. It's still worth doing, but it may not need venture capital or public financing.

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washingtonpost.com: David, thanks for taking time to answer reader questions. Any parting thoughts?

David Kirsch: Thanks for all your questions. Please share your own thoughts and experiences as time permits (www.dotcomarchive.org), and good luck.

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