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An Insider's Look at the Startup Struggle
on January 1, 2003
Startup tells the story of the rise and fall of GO Corporation, a maker of pen-based computer hardware and software. GO was founded in 1987 based on the idea that lightweight portable computers that used a pen instead of a keyboard would be quite useful devices, and that entirely new operating system software would be required to run them.
From the outset, the company faced a major problem: their main product was a pen-friendly operating system, but the device for which their software was targetted did not exist! Back then, the so-called portable computers were affectionately referred to as "luggables", and they all came with a keyboard. So to demonstrate the benefits of their software, GO was forced to spend its early precious resources developing its own pen computers. It was 3.5 years before the hardware group was spun out into a separate company called EO and bought by AT&T.
Kaplan's book is an interesting no-holds-barred account of the hectic start-up life and the cut-throat business world. To succeed, GO required a variety of partnerships, from hardware vendors to ISVs. In the course of wooing companies to help them, they rubbed shoulders with such big technology companies as IBM, Apple, HP, Microsoft, and AT&T. Negotiating with and placating the IBM bureaucracy turned into a major ordeal, and Microsoft's unethical theft of GO's intellectual property allowed Microsoft to become a competitive threat long before they otherwise should have been.
GO's other serious problem was that, in its 7+ years of existence, it never realized any significant product revenue. As a result, Kaplan was constantly scrounging for new investment money and was forced to make large concessions to get it. In the book's epilogue, he sums up the situation rather succintly and forthrightly: "In looking back over the entire GO-EO experience, it is tempting to blame the failure on management errors, aggressive actions by competitors, and indifference on the part of large corporate partners. While all these played important roles, the project might have withstood them if we had succeeded in building a useful product at a reasonable price that met a clear market need. ... The real question is not why the project died, but rather why it survived as long as it did with no meaningful sales."
The book may make even more interesting reading today (mid-2001) than when it was first published (1994). The intervening years have seen the dot-com boom and bust of the late 1990's, and the development of Palm handhelds, the first truly affordable and useful pen computers. GO may have burned through $75 million in its 7 year existence, but that is nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars wasted on short-lived dot-coms with ridiculous business models. And the overwhelming success of the Palm devices is a testament to the power of the idea that gave birth to GO. It was a valiant and commendable attempt, but in the final analysis, GO just had too many forces working against it, not least of which may have been that it was a bit ahead of its time....