CXO

Book tracks dot-com dream as it fades into a nightmare

The dot-com shakeout hasn't just bloodied NASDAQ. Workers who thought they were New Economy pioneers now find themselves displaced, out of work, or even back in a dark corporate suit. Bob Weinstein's Tech Watch surveys the carnage.


Steve Baldwin fantasized about making it big. For a while, everything went better than expected. Dot coms became his world. He lived and breathed their frenetic lifestyle. His work and social life didn’t extend beyond a 10-block radius of New York City’s “Silicon Alley,” a neighborhood so dubbed for its dozens of new media start-ups.

But then the NASDAQ plummeted in April 2000 and the dot-com outlook turned bleak. The change was so unexpected, most dot comers didn’t have time to update their resumes and look for new jobs. Mass layoffs became commonplace then and continue to be today.

Baldwin witnessed it all and documented his experiences in NetSlaves: True Tales of Working the Web. The book, which he coauthored with Bill Lessard, chronicles the adventures of dot comers who thought they had found nirvana and discovered a nightmare instead. At 44, Baldwin sees himself as an old-timer in a New Economy dominated by media hotshots in their early 20s.

Yet, despite his age, Baldwin considers himself privileged to have observed the Net as it emerged from an experimental medium for geeks into a vast cybermarketplace. He’s taken on the role of being the Net’s senior sage who in his spare time runs two Web sites: www.netslaves.com tells stories of fellow dot comers who were the victims of managerial incompetence and stupidity, and www.ghostsites.com, a virtual cemetery featuring the Museum of E-Failure, a list of deceased sites. It’s part hobby and part obsession, but Baldwin’s running chronicle of the Net in its Neanderthal stage will be the grist for many business lessons.

A decade of Web work
An early adopter, Baldwin became hooked on the Web in 1991 when he took a job as an assistant editor at Ziff Davis, a publisher of consumer and trade magazines. He rose through the ranks, working on online editions of Computer Shopper, PC Sources, and Window Services Magazine, before leaving in 1995. Baldwin even used pioneer browser Mosaic, the precursor to Netscape and Internet Explorer. “I felt like I was part of history. The Web was here to stay,” he says.

He witnessed the industry’s first major shakeout in 1993 when Ziff Davis pared its staff and shut down PC Sources. Baldwin was safe because he was a quick study. He mastered building HTML pages, which was a very marketable skill back at the time, as well as how to post content and build Web sites. In 1995, he joined the staff at Time Warner’s Pathfinder Web site, considered a premier site at the time. “I thought I arrived because they only hired the cream of the crop,” Baldwin says. “Pathfinder was a serious site, sort of a portal for all of the company’s magazines.”

Baldwin was even graced with a new title: technology producer. Morale was high when he joined the company, he said, but that changed six months later when the media leader was plagued by internal politics and tyrannical bosses. As the work piled up, Baldwin quickly got an inside look at what working for a growing dot com was like. The novelty quickly wore off. “You could never work enough hours because there was always something to do,” he says. “Routinely, I’d get in at 9 A.M. and leave at 11 P.M. My boss would arrive at 7 A.M. and work even longer hours. People started freaking out because of the stress level.”

In early 1997, Baldwin bailed out and went back to Ziff Davis as a multimedia producer. He quit a year later because of conflicts with his boss. (Pathfinder closed its doors in the summer of 2000 along with dozens of other dot coms.)

After leaving Ziff Davis, Baldwin opted to become the Net’s unofficial, and unpaid, historian. He pays his rent by writing an online column.

What’s next? The shakeout isn’t over. It will be two to three years before a new dot-com industry emerges, hopefully stronger and better managed than its predecessor. Jobs? Baldwin doesn’t advise dot comers to look for a new media job because pickings are less than slim. Instead, he advises pursuing old economy traditional companies. “The dot comers are valuable because they bring an incredible work ethic after months of working inhuman hours,” says Baldwin. “They’re also resilient because most of them worked under inept managers who changed their minds hourly. And they bring advanced Internet technology skills.

“But they’d better buy some suits before they interview,” Baldwin chuckles.

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