on March 20, 2004
I'll admit -- I finished this book relatively quickly. It's a quasi-page turner; that's why I gave it three stars instead of one.
But all along, as Kuo recounts his story of working for a seemingly mentally unstable CEO, he seems to feign naivete. "I saw Craig Winn as a visionary." But in the next paragraph, Kuo is pointing out how Winn was lying to the press and financial analysts. So Kuo really undercuts his own credibility by trying to play both sides here.
Here's my theory: He needed to suck up to Winn to get access in order to write this book. So even though he points out Winn's erratic moments and his outright lying, he thanks Winn at the end, and praises him. Ah, the price of media access!
Also, I think Kuo is embarassed, as he should be. He bought the dot-com story hook, line and sinker. He thought he'd be a millionaire, so he desperately wanted to believe Craig Winn's blather. On top of that, Kuo recruited his own wife and in-laws to work at Value America, so he's got a lot to be embarassed about!
Ultimately, Kuo's own equivocation prevents this story from being genuinely compelling.
on March 31, 2003
I had never heard of Value America prior to reading this book--which I know would have driven Craig Winn mad. The company never made it onto my Internet radar and didn't last long enough to change that. But what David Kuo leaves us with is a tale of one start-up which is highly indicative of what happened to other dot com companies during the same period, and that tale is quite an amusing one.
When I first saw the paperback edition of this book in the bookstore, I couldn't believe there was yet another dot com book on the shelves chronicling the death of a start-up, but when I picked it up, I got hooked quickly. In Kuo's introduction, he alludes to a pre-existing fascination with Value America prior to ever having been employed there. I can remember questioning whether or not I should have bought a share of some dot com company back then, much like Kuo, so his experiences mixed with the history of Value America make Kuo the ideal person to narrate the story.
After having finished the book, I couldn't believe that the characters were real people. There was just so much of many of the key players' personalities mixed into the story that it seemed almost like a novel.
If you're a person who enjoys reading about start-up companies, whether or not they are dot com, you will love this book. It really puts the notion of common sense in business back in perspective.
on March 25, 2003
As someone who worked for a smaller .com that also died a quick death, I can attest to how realistically Kuo captures the essence of the .com era. This book is about as realistic as it gets, the analysis of the internal and political problems start-up companies face is dead on. Steve Winn is a classic example of the salesman CEO, one who will say anything to close a sale. This book is a fantastic case study for anyone interested in understand the excesses of the .com era. The excessive spending, the focus of revenue, and the approval of garbage business plans. This book is also a testament to how far one can get with A+ salesmanship.
After reading this book, I decided to look up Steve Winn and see what he is up to these days. The book mentions the fact that Winn seemed to find religion shortly before he was ousted, now he is pushing books on terrorism denouncing Islam trying to cash in on 9-11. If you read this book, do an Amazon and Google search on Steve Winn, hilarity will ensue. Even his bio on the 700 club page has the typical Winn exaggerations. For more laughs, be sure to check out Winn's book about how his company was ruined by everyone else but him.
on January 27, 2003
Dob.bomb is an absolutely fascinating look behind the scenes of an internet bust. With incredible humor, author David Kuo tells a tale of how an egomaniacal founder, with a penchant for ultimate control, can kill even the best venture. I, too, worked for a "dot.com" company, and for an entrepreneur with qualities very similar to Mr. Winn's (do they just clone these guys??) As I read the book, I just replaced Mr. Winn's name with our CEO's and it told basically the same story. The parallels were incredible. They can't relinquish control because no one understands their baby like they do. They refuse to accept the advice of the very people they hire to take the company to the next level. And in the end, the most amazing thing is the disconnect that these ego driven visionaries have -- they absolutely cannot see how their actions had any effect on the company's failure. As the cops say, "yeah, I know, the other dude did it".
This book was such a fun read that I'm now reading it for a second time and recommending it to all my friends who work in hi tech environments. It is a funny but cautionary tale of what NOT to do. I lived through the same kind of nightmare of optimism-lunacy-panic-chaos-crash that David Kuo describes and he tells it like it is. The book is an absolute hoot, to boot. Buy it. Enjoy it. Learn from it.
on May 22, 2002
In the wake of the early 2000 dot-com bust, one of the biggest businesses seems to be people writing about their misadventures. While I can't claim to have read them all, David Kuo's "Dot Bomb" ranks high because of its depth, the insider status of its author and the access the author had to the deceptive world of Value America.
Kuo's characterization of Craig Winn, founder of Value America, is simultaneously hilarious and frightening. A man who started out one step down from a door-to-door salesman, Winn exhibits hubris that is unlikely to be seen in the marketplace again. Before his web page(where he hopes to cut out the "middleman" and sell basically everything there is to sell) is even complete, the reader sees Winn hobnobbing with Henry Kissinger and Jerry Falwell and planning a run for the U.S. presidency. Despite the fact that Value America never makes any money, that the web page has technical problems and that nothing ever seems to get delivered, Winn keeps his heads in the clouds, taking long weeks of tropical vacations and casually examining new inventions and religious on-line stores as his empire slowfully falls down around him.
Winn is not alone, as it seems that just about everyone who works for Value America watches its stock price more than their own work (Kuo is among them). From the rush to take the company public despite a lack of brand names to scenes of a ranting Winn complaining that nobody but him understands, the reader must fight away pain. To any rational (or, at the very least, post-Internet stock bust) reader, the actions taken by Winn and others are surrealistic, and by the end, the question isn't why Value America failed, but how it managed to stay around for as long as it did.
Kuo's position in the book is slightly ambigous and suspicious. As the public relations master of Value America, he's an experienced spin doctor, and ends the book with an afterword praising Winn. One wonders if Kuo was truly deluded, or if he adopted such a position to keep from being sued or to gain close interviews with Winn and other company executives. Kuo is certainly not as stupid as he makes himself out to be - such a person would not have been able to skillfully manuever himself into a safe position as Winn, the CEO and the board of directors play corporate political hardball. However, even if Kuo is not the "everyman" he paints himself to be, this book is a masterful potrait of the egos and idiocies that brought down Value America and, no doubt, so many similiar dot-com businesses.
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 April 30, 2002
Holy Mackerel! This insider story, albeit one-sided, of Value America's meteoric rise and equally memorable crash is a page turner. This "true story" is better than any fiction I have read lately.
Starting with the author's arrival at VA, David Kuo takes the reader on a journey through tyrannical leaders, pompous venture capitalists, overpaid executives, starry-eyed employees, furious customers and a laundry list of extravagant ways to waste money.
Just from a purely voyeuristic vantage, this book is an exciting roller coaster ride of good fortune and bad decisions. -- Always makes for a good read. -
However, from a business perspective, it is just plain frightening. From the colossal waste of investor's money to the inner-circle of executive back-stabbing, this book has all the makings of a Hollywood screenplay. I literally couldn't put it down, wondering what disaster was awaiting the cast of characters in the next chapter.
That being said, I realize this book is a very subjective viewpoint of a single employee of VA. Sour grapes? Perhaps. But if even half of what the book purports to be truth is accurate, VA was once a very scary ride for both its employees and investors.
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 December 2, 2001
This is great book which I read in 5 hours as I couldn't put it down. It is unique in that it was written by the head of media relations after the collapse of the company and he was able to get information from both the competing factions.
The company founder is an excellent entreprenuer who has started another company, made good money, but then blew up the company as he was too marketing motivated without taking care of the details. With a great internet idea, he was able to generate investments from many of the corporate titans like Paul Allen and Fred Smith. This helped grow the hype allowing the founder to have a paper net worth of over $1 billion at one time.
Unfortunately, it was a house of cards and quickly came tumbling down as the financial statistics demanded from Wall Street started to shift from growth to income. The founder was unable to shift out of his "idea" mentality and couldn't hand the company to the chosen experienced CEO. But that would be understating the meglomaniac tendancy of this guy and that's what makes the read so exciting.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in the Internet world or business case studies and what can go wrong. I read some of the reviews by some of the former employees of the company who did not like what the author had to say. I found his point of view to be excellent and as unbiased as possible as he admitted allegiance to both sides in the corporate struggle and how he dealt with it. READ THIS BOOK.
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.