by Michael Lewis. 2000, 368 pages, $29.95, ISBN 0-393-04813-6. Published by W.W. Norton & Co.
The July 1999 issue of Forbes Magazine makes the astonishing observation that there art now 465 people who have a billion or more dollars. Incredibly,, as this book notes, there are an estimated 180,000 Americans who are deca-millionaires (over ten million dollars in assets). An inventor or entrepreneur upon reading these statistics may note that not only has a great amount of wealth been created, but that it is not in the hands of just a handful of people.
This book tells how one man, Jim Clark, starting out as a thirty-eight year old unsuccessful college professor and whose second wife just left him, went on to create, in succession, three billion dollar corporations. These creations were Silicon Graphics, Netscape, and Healtheon. In the process of achieving this hat trick, he also reinvented the social order. The "Organization Man" and conformity have been replaced by brilliant engineers and nonconformity. Bitter at how little the actual creators of Silicon Graphics received and how much the venture capitalists profited, Jim Clark made sure in his next two ventures that, by such means as stock options, his creative people prospered very well indeed.
One of Clark's great strengths has been to rapidly change directions. As the book notes, "A stunning ignorance of mass tastes was a common problem in high technology". For example, Honeywell, in the 1960s, created The Kitchen Computer and assumed housewives would welcome the monster-size computer in their kitchens and would know how to program it. "Neiman Marcus failed to sell a single unit".
When Marc Andreesen mentioned that 25 million people were then using the Internet, Jim Clark saw the potential of Marc's Mosaic code and formed Mosaic Communications (which became Netscape). This time around Clark cut a deal with venture capitalists that was unprecedented. When the initial public stock offering was made, "It was one of the most successful share offerings in the history of U.S. stock markets and possibly the most famous". In the past, shares were not sold to the investing public until four consecutive quarters were profitable. Now it was the future potential, the rapid growth, that lured investors. Also, the young engineers profited. Inventor Marc Andreesen, at twenty-four, was now worth eighty million dollars! Stock -options were now the name of the game for engineers.
The author compares the changes in the Silicon Valley value system to the changes that have taken place in Hollywood's value system. He notes "The stars seized power. And once they'd seized power they raised their price and demanded the right to direct their own picture". He compares Jim Clark to Marlon Brando.
A fascinating insight into Silicon Valley is that almost half of the companies there have be founded by Indian entrepreneurs. The book tells how Nehru set up an educational system that found the very best young minds among 900 million people and brought them to the Indian Institute of Technology. They all spoke English and America offered the highest pay and the most opportunity.
Another informative bit in the book is the origin of the word "debug". It turns out that back in the 1960s a computer problem was found to be literally due to a large moth trapped inside. The word become the standard term for removing errors from programs.
This book is so up to date you may feel you are reading your daily newspaper. How Microsoft attempted to achieve complete domination over the world's 500 million computers is explained. Netscape informed the U.S. Department of Justice of Microsoft's threats. Together with information furnished by other firms, this led to the Justice Department's antitrust action.
The author observes that generally speaking stock market investors now fall into two categories -- those who follow the Graham and Dodd's system of careful analysis and those who are "kamikaze investors". It will be interesting to see which of the these two opposing financial philosophies has the last laugh.
Considerable book space is devoted to Jim Clark's obsession with building his completely computer-controlled world's largest sailboat. A sad observation made by sailors is that when approaching an island a land bird, such as a hawk, may appear, but it may be too far out and it will perish in the sea. The author notes how this is "The first bird, like a man ahead of his time, a tragic figure". A reminder that all inventor and entrepreneurs are not Jim Clarks.
A highly readable book and, if you delight in the thought that bankers and venture capitalists should not rule the business world, you will enjoy Jim Clark's triumphs.