Burn Rate, a dotcom time capsule

Do you ever find yourself wondering what it would have been like to live through the dotcom craze, circa 1996? More specifically, a New York based publishing-cum-media company with grandiose aspirations? Probably not, but still the fact that an artifact like Burn Rate exists is interesting in and of itself. Burn Rate is the story of a company that I’d never heard of, written by the founder himself, whom I’d never heard of. Which means the book could only end badly. But for that reason alone it was entirely fascinating, watching all the wrong turns and moments of personal hubris lead towards greater and greater humiliations.

Cover of Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff
Burn Rate, by Michael Wolff

Burn Rate was published in 1998, and concerned events that occurred roughly within a three year period starting in 1994. Let’s put this in context. “The first funding for Google as a company was secured in August 1998, in the form of a $100,000 contribution from Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, given to a corporation which did not yet exist”. So the book ended with nary a mention of Google—the 800 pound gorilla was not yet a figment in the minds of its eventual founders. And yet all throughout the book I could sense it right around the corner.

It was a fun read because I knew how it was going to turn out. Well, I know how things are now. When the author mused on whether the future would go this way or that, I knew exactly which way it went. When he nailed the future on the head, he sounded completely prescient, but when he was doubtful, he ended up parroting the recycled fears of the traditional media world—that we still hear to this day. Still, I really enjoyed reading one history of what led to where we are now, even though this book mostly encompassed the wrong turns, dead ends, and “corrections”.

In some ways it read like a work of historical fiction. I knew all the major companies at the time, like AOL, Excite, CNet, Yahoo, and Microsoft, and yet the names of all the players seemed imagined. I found myself wondering, what ever happened to Michael Wolff, the author, and his company Wolff New Media? A quick Google search told me that he’s involved in yet another online venture I’d never heard of (Newser) that sounded like wistful throwback to the days of traditional media. And in somewhat sadder news, I found his recent affair and divorce plastered all over Gawker. Telling.

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