When I was a kid growing up in Miami, my father, hoping to encourage my interest in writing, would take me to see authors read from their books. I remember seeing literary lights as diverse as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Dave Barry, Ted Koppel and James Michener. Toward the end of each evening, the master of ceremonies would indicate that it was time to take questions from the audience. After I had been to one or two of these events, this announcement began to make me cringe, and I could usually detect a bit of ill-concealed apprehensiveness in the visiting author as well.
Audience members would line up behind a microphone in the aisle. Some would inevitably be clutching brown envelopes stuffed with copies of their novels, which they intended to thrust into the hands of the visiting author before the night was through. This was the mid-1980s, when having a book on the bestseller list was still a viable way to achieve celebrity in America. These people wanted an agent, a contract, a publisher, and they would ask questions that struck me, even in my early teens, as incredibly inane:
"Do you use a typewriter or a word processor, or do you write longhand?"
"Should you bind a manuscript when you send it to an agent?"
"What weight of paper do you use?"
"Whats the ideal length for a book proposal?"
The visiting author would answer the questions as diplomatically and patiently as he could, though a few would protest that the particulars of paper weight and line spacing werent factors in landing an agent or publisher. Still, the audience members would go home, pleased that they had been let in on a few of the secrets to becoming a Published Writer.
I was transported back to those author Q&A's this week, when I attended the Bootcamp for Startups in Wellesley, Mass., just west of Boston.
The event, organized by Garage.com, a Palo Alto company that helps connect young, primarily tech-focused companies with investors, was held at Babson College -- a school known for its entrepreneurship programs. Babson, located in the wealthy Boston suburbs, feels not like an army base, but a miniature version of Harvard. There are lush expanses of perfectly mowed grass separating federal-style brick buildings, their white cupolas topped with light green, oxidized copper caps.
Attendees converging on Babson for the Bootcamp for Startups were promised "a conference featuring an established network of industry experts, insiders, venture capitalists, and angel investors." Mostly, it seemed, they were interested in those last two.
On a shuttle bus transporting the would-be Jeff Bezoses from a satellite parking lot to the center of campus, I sat next to an entrepreneur from Philadelphia who, when asked about his hometown, launched into a good-humored but jaded diatribe about the lack of Internet-savvy there. "You have to sit around explaining an affiliate program to people, and how it is they make money," he said incredulously. "Everyone asks, 'Why would Amazon pay you to sell books for them?'" The local venture capitalists -- while scarce -- are slightly better informed, according to my seatmate, though they are reluctant to invest in a Philadelphia start-up until Silicon Valley venture capitalists give it their stamp of approval by offering to lead the first round of funding. "They'll follow, as long as you find another investor to lead. It's crazy."
At registration, held inside the college's gymnasium, I was handed a name tag bearing the red-and-blue Bootcamp for Startups logo, with the word "Bootcamp" done up in a stenciled, faux-military font. Inside the plastic badge-holder, behind the name tag, was a bright yellow card. At technology trade shows, usually these cards serve as some kind of incentive to get you to stop by a particular company's booth; instinctively, I throw them away.
This one, however, was not a promotion. It was titled "Schmooze Codes," and it explained how to label your name tag so that people you encountered at the conference would be able to instantly see what kind of business you were starting and what stage you were at. (I had never seen this before, and I go to a fair number of conferences.) For example, if you were looking for early-stage "seed" funding and had an Internet portal idea, you would write S-IP in the upper right corner of your badge "in bold block letters about 1/2 inch high." If you were already fully funded and had a semiconductor company (there were not many of these people in attendance), you would write F-HW. One guy's name tag looked like a rack of Scrabble tiles: S-IC IB IS IT IP SW OT, indicating that his business was in seven different industries (including "other"). I decided that either he was incredibly unfocused, or he had the next Microsoft on his hands.
Inside the Knight Auditorium, the conference was already under way. The space felt like an austere New England meeting house, with a U-shaped balcony, tall windows lining the two long walls and a slightly raised stage at the front. The lighting was jarringly inappropriate -- yellow and green beams shone upward against the wall behind the speakers. It gave the stage a "Wizard of Oz" -- as in, "the great and powerful Oz has spoken" -- kind of vibe.
Onstage, Guy Kawasaki, Garage.com's chairman and the former "chief evangelist" at Apple Computer, was introducing the first panel, titled "Basic Training." It started out well. Kawasaki is one of the high-tech world's more engaging presenters, and on this particular morning he was as impish, chipper and energetic as ever.
Introducing Richard Testa, a senior partner at the Boston law firm of Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault (he was the only member of the panel wearing a tie), Kawasaki recounted having lunch with Testa when he was in the middle of starting Garage.com. "I was in a T-shirt and jeans," Kawasaki said, "and Dick was wearing a nice shirt with French cuffs and cuff links -- he looked very important, very powerful." Kawasaki pulled a pair of cuff links out of his pocket and held them up. "I just want to show you that I have cuff links now," he said, to laughter from the audience, "and I'm working on the shirt."
The subtext of that comment seemed to set a fitting tone for the day. In the old economy, it was the well-dressed lawyers with their flashy cuff links and single-
Kawasaki has developed a rather high-profile personality in the technology world, writing books (most recently "Rules for Revolutionaries") and a column for Forbes, and rallying the Macintosh faithful for Apple. Like Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Kawasaki has acquired a cultlike following; several people I spoke to at the conference said they had come specifically to see Kawasaki. "I'm a longtime Mac user, and Guy has been really inspirational to me," said one. "I felt like I owed it to him."
Kawasaki, in his speaking and writing, paints with a roller, not a brush. He is the tech world's Tom Peters. He makes high-level recommendations like "harness naiveti," meaning that you should ask naive people to do things that conventional wisdom brands impossible, and often they will succeed.
So I was surprised, as he moderated the day's first two panel discussions, to hear him asking picayune, packaging-obsessed questions that harked back to the author Q&A's of my youth. The panelists were bankers, lawyers, accountants and venture capitalists. Among Kawasaki's questions:
"How long do you think a business plan should be?"
"How many business plans do you see a day?"
"How long should the pitch last, and how many slides should there be in the PowerPoint presentation?"
"How many e-mails and voice mails do you get every day?"
The answers perfectly paralleled what a panel of literary agents and publishers and writers would tell a roomful of wannabe novelists. Venture capitalists, the late '90s equivalents of literary agents, are inundated with business plans; Michael Frank of Advanced Technology Ventures said he expects to receive 10,000 this year. They prefer short plans. Write it on a napkin, suggested Craig Johnson of Venture Law Group: "Length is an inverse predictor of success." They very rarely invest if the plan arrives without a referral from someone they know; Frank said he never had, and neither had Chip Hazard of Greylock, another venture firm.
Much of the day's discourse was similarly packaging- and process-oriented. Instead of asking venture capitalists and entrepreneurs about hot markets or finding that first batch of customers, Mary Ann Cusenza of Garage.com asked this "Swingers"-inspired question: After presenting to a venture capitalist, how long do you wait before you call?
Though questions like that seemed to skirt the essence of what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, Garage.com seems to be in tune with its audience. The previous two Bootcamp events, both held in the Bay Area, had sold out, as did this one, with 700 attendees who each paid as much as $895 for the two-day conclave. Garage.com marketing director Geoff Baum told me that the company was planning six Bootcamps for next year, and would expand to some new cities, like Seattle, New York and Austin. Though the initial business plan for Garage.com didn't include a conference arm, "it will be a significant portion of our revenue this year," said Baum.
And the audience at the Boston Bootcamp seemed to feel they were being given insider info. Few people I spoke to expressed disappointment at the "just add water" nature of much of the advice. Justin Mabey, a 22-year-old college student who is starting a company called I-moments.com in Provo, Utah, came to learn the steps to the V.C. dance, as did aspiring entrepreneurs I met from Atlanta and Maryland and Virginia and Singapore, who all seemed to feel that two days at this conference would grant them admission to the dance hall - or at least the chutzpah to crash it.
But in addition to this group, who hoped that by having the right number of PowerPoint slides (12) in their presentation, they would gain entree to the world of Yahoo and eBay and Cisco, there were people with x's in the upper-right corners of their nametags ("No idea yet, not seeking funding"), and people with only the vaguest notions of what product or service their prospective start-up would offer, and why anyone would be interested.
These were the start-up fantasists, whose imaginations were fueled by the relentless media gong-banging about struggling entrepreneurial misfits who'd been magically transformed into billionaires by the VCs and investment bankers. "GetRich.com: Secrets of the New Silicon Valley" was the cover story of the Sept. 27 issue of Time magazine. A copy of Forbes handed out at Bootcamp bore a picture of the billionaire founder of Portal Software astride his mountain bike. The subhead: "A mass affluent class emerges in America. So what's it take to be rich?"
These guys wanted to find out. They were here to learn just how to enact the rallying cry that graced the Bootcamp T-shirt: "Start up, kick butt, cash out."
While the Internet industry's first five years were populated by people with a passion for the medium or a business idea that kept them up at night and couldn't have existed were it not for the Web, now that they've attained mainstream celebrity, it seems there are thousands of people out there who don't have the next killer idea up their sleeve, but simply want to be like Jeff or Marc or Pierre (Amazon's Bezos, Netscape's Andreessen, and eBay's Omidyar, of course). Even Baum, the Garage.com marketing director, estimated that 20 percent of the Bootcamp attendees weren't really conversant with Internet technology, but had daydreams about one day quitting their jobs and starting their own dot-com. "There's totally that element here," he said.
Garage.com doesn't seem to object to it, either. In the world of writers perpetually on the verge of writing the great American novel, there's a healthy market for conferences designed to help find an agent, books that teach how to package a proposal, magazines like Writer's Digest that explain how to craft a query letter and author Q&A's like the ones I grew up attending, addressing the issue of whether publishers turn up their noses at 24-pound paper. Many of those writers never finish, and some never start their books -- but they're instrumental to the industry, which is happy to encourage their fantasies. The same dynamic is shaping up in the world of high tech, and with its Bootcamp conferences, Garage.com has tapped into it earlier than anyone else.
At lunch, I shared a table with Don Peterson, president of Framecast Communications, a Lenexa, Kan., company that is developing tools that colleges and prep schools can use for their Web sites. Peterson is a gregarious fellow, though when he's not talking, he looks stern, with spiky salt-and-pepper hair and a flat, deeply lined face. Before starting Framecast, he started and sold a company called DeskStation Technology, which made high-end Windows NT workstations and servers. And before that, he was a sales executive at Advanced Micro Devices, a chip maker that competes with Intel. He said he was here
because he was a fan of Kawasaki's, but that he'd been thinking about leaving early.
"I'm not sure you can teach people how to start a company," Peterson said. "Everyone would like to think there's an easy formula, but there's not. It's hard, hard work."
I told Peterson that the Bootcamp had reminded me of the sessions I'd attended as a youngster, where the audience pressed authors for their advice: to bind or not to bind. He thought about it for a second, and said, "Yes, and even if that [advice] works for you, if you get published, that's not even half the battle. You have to fight to get shelf space in the bookstores, to get reviews. You have to sell your book."
Around the table, two of our fellow entrepreneurs were planning a sortie to the dessert table, and the other one was flirting with two attractive young women who had helped to plan the event. I asked Peterson how many of the attendees would have living, breathing companies by this time next year.
"One percent," he said.
That estimate, to me, seemed a bit dour. But what I didn't doubt was that Garage.com would have no problem filling seats at its Bootcamps next year, and the year after -- as long as people continued to enjoy imagining themselves as the high-stepping CEOs of their very own Internet start-ups, knowing all the right steps, mamboing their way to the IPO.