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Monday, November 01, 2004 - Page updated at 07:21 A.M.
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Archive tells tales of dot-coms and dot-bombs

By ELLEN McCARTHY
The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — This was the pitch: String together a network of powerful telescopes and beam live images of deep space onto the Internet.

Don't make users pay to see the universe, but attract advertisers who want their logos displayed alongside the glorious (real-time) heavens.

Raise about $30.8 million in venture capital, create a global monopoly on outer-space imagery and cash out by holding an initial public stock offering on Nasdaq.

Today the Web site of KaoticSpace.com is gone.

Years from now, few are likely to remember the company's rapid — meteoric, if you will — rise and fall. And David Kirsch thinks that's a shame.

For more than two years, Kirsch, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, has been frantically collecting business plans of the dot-com era.

To let these documents lie idle and scattered is to risk losing an important piece of American business and cultural history, Kirsch argues.

"How will future historians be able to understand the texture of this time? What information will they have access to, to understand the highs and lows?" he asks.

"We can't wait 100 years for documents to wend their way into historical archives. We've got to act now."

Kirsch and a rotating staff of loyal students have created a digital database — available at www.businessplanarchive.org — that lists more than 2,300 companies so far, mostly from 1997 to 2002.

It's a painstaking process, and the records are far from comprehensive, Kirsch acknowledges, but he hopes the archives may prove useful in capturing the craziness of the Internet boom.

For instance, how could a scholar 50 years from now capture the brazen self-confidence of dot-com entrepreneurs? Chapters of exposition might not match two paragraphs in KaoticSpace.com's 2001 business plan that lay out the company's public-relations strategy:

"We won't have to bribe or pay any media providers for promotion. It is in their users' (investors) interest to know of us. By not providing their users with the most current information on us, they (media providers) would be doing their viewers a disservice, and risk losing said viewers."

Or consider the founders of FreeProductSamples.com. They identified at least 21 other companies trying to make a profit giving away beauty products and household items but were confident they could become cash-flow positive in 12 months and hit the $100 million revenue mark in five years.

Executives of ThatNew.com sought to help users keep track of all the exciting Web sites popping up on the Internet by filtering them into categories like "thatnewbusiness.com" and "thatnewshow.com."

Investment appeal

"Accordingly we believe the 'thatnew' brand is a strong one and ripe for immediate growth and commercial exploitation," the company's executives explained in an e-mail appealing for an investment.

Alumni of the era and pop-culture junkies could easily spend hours perusing the documents Kirsch has assembled on the project's Web site. Just skimming the company names is a journey to the past. Of the companies listed, 18 have names beginning with the word "Free." Nine start with "Hot" and 24 begin with the prefix "Web."

The business plan of Mom.com, an Owings Mills, Md., company, spells out its game plan for becoming the "top Internet destination for everything about being a Mom."

Herndon, Va.-based SingleShop, which sought to organize product sales on the Web by allowing consumers to buy products on different sites and pay for them in one transaction, projected it would have $31.17 million in revenue by 2003. The company has vanished.

Kirsch said some of the plans were sent to him as people found out about the project. Others came from executives he and his assistants sought out. Some of the contributors are happy to unload their files, dumping whole disks and folders of documents on Kirsch's desk, but many are reticent.

For a few, the pain that came from the era's implosion is still raw, so putting their own folly on display seems a bit ridiculous, he says. Many others are reluctant to expose documents created under attorney-client privilege.

Do it for history

"I get a lot of people saying, 'I've got tons of stuff, but I don't know if I can give it to you,' " Kirsch said. But the most important thing, he argues, is to make sure the documents exist in 50 or 100 years. "I don't know how to communicate that with people. I call it 'Open Source' History — history that is to be written by the people who lived it."

To capture more of that history, Kirsch recently launched a second project that allows individuals to share their stories from the bubble.

At CreativeDestruction.org, anyone who worked at Internet technology companies during the 1990s can log on and write about the experience or take a survey about what the period was like.

"History tends to be from the voices of the elites," Kirsch says. "I want to know what the receptionist was thinking, not just the chief executive."

So far about 200 people have contributed their stories, and Kirsch says their themes read like a broken record.

"They all say it was about the people. The people, the people, the people," he says. "They were trying to do well by doing good."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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