King of the Valley?

The New New Thing

King of the Valley?

The New New Thing

King of the Valley?
New books dissected over email.
Oct. 26 1999 10:41 AM

The New New Thing

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Jim Clark as Dennis Rodman: I like that analogy of yours, but I also think that in using it, you've stumbled across the biggest problem with The New New Thing. (See? There I go again.) Dennis Rodman is (or, rather, was) the most colorful, bizarre and interesting player in professional basketball--and he was also a helluva talent. You could undoubtedly write a more interesting book about Rodman than you could about, say, Michael Jordan--who, despite being the greatest player of all time, is bland as toast off the court, and a tougher nut to crack in any case. It takes a lot of work to write about Jordan. Even David Halberstam, who wrote a book about Jordan's exploits during his last season, couldn't wrest an interview from him. But if you were to decide that Rodman was your subject--and why not, since he's so much more fun to write about, and since he's also much more accessible than Jordan?--could you then say that your book was about The Man Who Single-handedly Changed Professional Basketball? Nobody would dare make such a claim, would they?

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Yet isn't that what Michael Lewis has done here? His main character--nay, his only character--is truly fascinating. He's deeply eccentric. He boils over with absurd resentments. He bubbles over with interesting ideas. He spends half the book building the biggest yacht in the world. He must have been a ton of fun to write about. (And he was accessible to the author!) But can it truly be claimed--as Lewis, in fact, claims--that Jim Clark, more than any other single person, shaped the current ethos of Silicon Valley? Or is it more likely that having landed his subject, Lewis created a thesis to justify his choice?

My own suspicion is that the truth is closer to the latter than the former. This is not to say that Clark isn't a big deal, but there are others who are bigger deals, and have done more to change the Valley than Clark. The venture capitalist John Doerr springs instantly to mind. In addition, there are a ton of forces at play that conspired to create modern Silicon Valley. My guess is that the various changes Lewis documents would have happened with or without Jim Clark.

Of course, the biggest force was (and is) the Internet. Here Lewis would probably point out that as the co-founder of Netscape, Clark played a singularly important role in making the Internet a mass-market medium, which is what changed everything. (And oh, how I longed for a detailed inside history of Netscape in The New New Thing. But, alas, it was nowhere to be found. As you correctly pointed out, once Clark loses interest, so does Lewis.) But Mosaic, the first browser, had already been invented by Marc Andreessen, Clark's co-founder. And as Lewis himself points out, Clark's greatest contribution with Netscape--the actual thing he did that made the biggest change in the way Silicon Valley works--was to take it public before it was profitable. Once that offering took off, it was as if a light bulb went off all over the Valley. YOU DIDN'T HAVE TO HAVE A PROFITABLE COMPANY TO GET RICH! What an insight! What caused Clark to have this insight? Here, I'm afraid, is where Lewis loses me completely. He says that Clark pushed for a Netscape IPO because he wanted to build a new boat, and this was the only way he could think to pay for it. I'm sorry, I just couldn't buy that one. Could you?

Clark, in fact, is such a one-of-a-kind character that he doesn't really stand in for any Silicon Valley "type." "I can't be a venture capitalist because I'm not that kind of person," Clark tells Lewis at one point. "And I can't be a manager, because I'm not that kind of person. All I can do is start them." That's the claim Clark makes for himself. But then Lewis goes on to write, "His role in the Valley was suddenly clear: he was the author of the story. He was the man with the nerve to invent the tale in which all the characters--the engineers, the VCs, the managers, the bankers--agreed to play the role he assigned to them." Jim Clark? Maybe you could say that about J.P. Morgan once upon a time. (Or is that journalistic myth-making, too?) But that kind of claim for Clark just doesn't hold up, at least not to my mind.

There is one way Clark is representative of the Valley. In his open lust for money, Clark is willing to say out loud what everyone else there thinks--but doesn't dare say. And Lewis captures that exquisitely. There is another of those wonderful Lewis scenes in which Clark is saying that if only he can be richer than Larry Ellison, who's worth $9 billion, he'll stop. Lewis reminds him that not long ago, Clark had said he would be satisfied with "$1 billion after taxes." Clark just shrugs. When Lewis asks him if he wants more than Bill Gates, Clark laughs off the suggestion as ludicrous. But a few minutes later he adds, "You know, just for one moment, I would kind of like to have the most. Just for one tiny moment." Beautiful.

I wind up thinking that to really enjoy The New New Thing, you have to forget about the claim the author is making for his subject and simply revel in scenes like that one. But for me, at least, that's awfully hard to do. I keep seeing Dennis Rodman being described as Michael Jordan.

P.S.: I realize that we haven't yet talked about MyCFO, and I promise to get to that tommorrow. In the meantime, though, I couldn't help noticing that just last week, Clark brought on a senior guy from Charles Schwab to be the CEO. Betcha they're already planning the IPO.

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This week, Joe Nocera and Jean Strouse discuss Michael Lewis' The New New Thing (click here to buy it). Nocera is editor at large for Fortune magazine and lives in Northampton, Mass. Strouse is the author of Morgan: American Financier (click here to buy it).