February 1997: Nasdaq was rumbling up to 1400, Amazon.com was still private, and a guy named Gilbert was running Apple Computer. Oh, and Fast Company was toasting its first anniversary. To commemorate the occasion, we crafted “The Startup Manifesto.”
Looking back, it’s clear Fast Company wasn’t just sipping the New Economy Kool-Aid; we were serving it up in 55-gallon drums. But can you blame us? After all, we were a startup ourselves. Within days of our anniversary, Ad Age and Adweek crowned us Launch of the Year and Startup of the Year, respectively. Suddenly, everyone was hungry for a business magazine with passion. “Stunned,” exclaimed a reader in the February issue. “Floored,” said another. Fast Company was “a mind-expanding experience.”
Yep. We were onto something. And if you liked some of what we sold you before, try a little of this: “Quit your job,” we advised. “Work your butt off. Screw up.” And, what the hell: “Have the time of your life!”
FC’s founders wrote in their annual report to readers: “Whether you’re starting a company, joining a startup — or seeking to rejuvenate an older company so it feels like a startup — we live in an economy of startups.” Even the icy chill of Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” speech couldn’t keep Wall Street from birthing 147 public technology companies in 1997. Everyone, it seemed, had two business cards: one for their day job and another for that special something they were cooking up in the garage.
What of the two iconic startups we chronicled in that issue’s cover story, “The Only Thing That Matters”? Both F5 Labs and Zombie Virtual Reality Entertainment are flourishing. But all our New Economy heroes have moved on. “Mad Bomber” Mike Almquist, the irreverent 28-year-old cofounder of F5 Labs (“Give me $110 million and stay away from me for three years”), left the helm just 15 months later. His next three properties, Indaba Communications, Zama Networks, and Ahaza Systems, burned through tens of millions of dollars before the last evaporated in 2002.
Almquist’s story was not unique. The startup frenzy in Seattle, where we claimed “even the most outrageous bullshit glisten[ed] like spun gold,” was doomed. Avi Bar-Zeev (“The Refugee”), who had escaped the corporate world to chase his dreams alongside Almquist, is now in New York working on his third novel. Sandra Smith (“The Natural”), the office manager who stumbled into a job as a game producer for Zombie, is back in Seattle, working on 3-D game projects. And what of Richard Novotny (“The Grown-Up”), a “corporate vagabond turned venture capitalist” who plied wealthy Asian investors for funding in soft-spoken Japanese? He’s still in Seattle, now suiting up in pinstripes and heading business operations for a search-engine firm.
To those embattled veterans, the startup phenomenon sure feels dead. “Unless you’re a Croatian developer, that door is shut,” says Zombie cofounder and co-CEO Mark Long. He’s down to 25 employees, from 75, and it’s a different game, he says. “No one’s giving $25 million anymore to eight guys who used to work at Microsoft and have a cool idea.”
True — but let’s not abandon hope. “In all the startups in all the industries in all the cities in the world . . . you’ll always find the same cast of characters — and the same animal spirits at work: freedom, risk, and teamwork.” We wrote those words eight years ago — and we stand by them. The world doesn’t feel as bright and shiny as it used to, but freedom, risk, and teamwork — those are still the essential ingredients of success.
“At night in a Seattle bar, the world is alive with possibilities: Dreamers and schemers fill the rain-stained air. . . . This moment belongs to the techno-preneurs, the men and women whose birthright of personal freedom and individual destiny marks a fundamentally new way of being in business, finding the future, and making a difference.”
–The Only Thing That Matters,” February/March 1997