A Very Public Offering
A Very Public Offering is the story of the community site theglobe.com, written by one of its founders, Stephan Paternot, who, now at 26 and out of the business, is an industry vet.
Stephan Paternot has been described as the poster child for the internet mania of the late Nineties... well, that and one of the first whipping boys when the market began its spectacular collapse. The posterboy bit is understandable. He looks like Jason Priestly, the actor most famous for his time on Beverly Hills 90201.
That's important as it adds somehow to this tale of the young and good-looking riding the whirlwind of the dotcom boom. And that is something that this book does quite well. It puts you right in there with the people as it was happening.
There are great examples of how everything got blown out of proportion. He talks about his own warped priorities, as he relates the worry at the prospect of war with Iraq on the eve of his company's IPO. "Todd and I knew that a declaration of war, among other things, could really disrupt the market."
Paternot co-founded the site when he was 20 and by the time he was 24 he had floated on Nasdaq and Theglobe.com opened on Wall Street with the largest IPO in stock history. Literally overnight, the online community's co-founder was worth $97m (£66.2m), all before his 25th birthday.
The story starts in a dorm room where Paternot and room mate Todd come up with this idea about online communities. You probably remember community -- it was one of the three Cs that you had to have and it was something that people repeated to each other like a mantra: content, commerce and community. Theglobe.com was all about the latter.
While still at Cornell University, they managed to raise millions of dollars in investment capital and, in what seemed like a nanosecond, Paternot and Todd managed to graduate from college and relocate theglobe.com to New York City, where the company's revenues (and employee count) exploded. Internet mania gripped Manhattan's Silicon Alley and, over drinks at Spy or Coffee Shop, bleary-eyed CEOs in their twenties ran themselves ragged to build their dreams as the economy fell in love with dotcoms.
This story is already oddly familiar. You've probably read a dozen like it already. If you saw Startup.com the movie recently then you know what this book is about.
The take here is that it is written by someone very young who is running a public company. This will remain one of the most interesting footnotes from the whole dotcom boom -- that these in-college/just-out-of-college guys were starting companies and then floating them on the stock exchange.
That is as revolutionary as anything else about those times -- already past tense. On the day of their IPO, Paternot thinks about wearing a suit as they go down to meet their bankers, but he resists. He and his partner turn up in combats and leather jackets like the rebels they see themselves to be. But the truth is, as he reflects later when he sees the photographs, they were just a pair of scruffy looking twentynothings.
And, truth be told, that is just what they were. Later, as many of the young founders were kicked out of the companies they started, it was because of this that people began to realise that to run public companies you actually need people who know something about business as much as anything else.
These guys didn't and it is still amazing that some supposedly bright people in the venture capitalist industry gave these college kids a lot of money and then got angry when it was lost.
Truth is, the story would probably have been the same if proper management teams had been in place from the get go but that, of course, is something we will not know now.
Once the troubles set in, Paternot gets bitter pretty quickly and he has a lot of beefs. Beefs with bankers, investors and the press. The press he accuses of using him and his partner as whipping boys and that they were ambushed at every turn. When it starts to go bad, the book is full of lines like "the press didn't miss a beat" or "the article was the most salacious, attacking, scathing story about us I'd ever seen". But then he saw the next one.
By this stage in the book, it all starts to feel somewhat self-pitying. One of the worst aspects about this book is you don't feel that the Paternot ever learnt anything. When it comes to the end, Paternot is blaming everyone else. It's in the title as well, the offering he refers to is, you start to think, himself.
This is a good story, but unfortunately it's just badly told. The style is too often breathless, the college diary tone sounds too much like Paternot is just talking us through it. This could be a problem with the fact that it is ghost written and simply rushed out.
It is also a book that is slightly over-sold. The book's subtitle is "A rebel's story of business excess, success and reckoning". There is no rebel or rebellion in this book. No tales of debauchery of booze and drugs, which is of course a shame. Instead, he talks about his family -- as his company is dying so is his father in London. He talks about the love of his life, Jenn.
These guys are clean living. At one point, he complains about a French journalist smoking in the non-smoking area of a restaurant -- oh no, call the police. At another point, he complains of being boring and, truth is, he probably is but he also managed to do what only a few managed to achieve.
In the end, theglobe.com like so many others closed its doors last month. It was community's end. Paternot is still convinced it could have worked. All he needed was some more cash.
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