I just finished reading High Stakes, No Prisoners: A Winner’s Tale of Greed and Glory in the Internet Wars, by Charles H Ferguson. First, let me say that I recommend that you read business books years after they’re printed. Business writers cover their topics fully armed with conventional wisdom and the benefit of hindsight, so as a reader it’s wonderful to have these benefits as well. Ferguson’s book was written in 1999, before the dot com bubble blew up, and he was writing about 1994 and 1995, the very bottom of the Internet curve. In case you don’t know, Ferguson was the founder of Vermeer, which created FrontPage and then was immediately acquired by Microsoft.
I read a recommendation of the book a few years ago, and only now got around to reading it, and I’m glad I did. Make no mistake about it, Ferguson is an arrogant fellow, but that doesn’t hurt the quality of the book at all, because Ferguson tempers his arrogance with his seemingly complete candor and his best effort acknowledgement of his own failings as a businessman and as a person.
The most valuable information in the book is the discussion of the ins and outs of founding a high tech company. Ferguson lays out the details of starting a company, hiring people, dealing with venture capitalists, and building a company in full detail. He also discusses the pitfalls of dealing with people across the food chain — potential executives, venture capitalists, acquirers, and everyone else who would do your company ill. If you ever want to get in on the ground floor of a startup, you can really benefit from Ferguson’s experience.
Ferguson also offers the best explanation of why Netscape failed that I’ve yet read. That’s tempered by plenty of other things that he doesn’t get quite right, including the potential of things like Apache and Linux, and the degree to which FrontPage has succeeded in the market. Ferguson was under the belief that FrontPage would become a tool used by professionals to build complicated Web sites, when in fact it has turned out to be a tool used by neophytes to build Web sites that drive people crazy. A big part of that is the way Microsoft has used FrontPage strategically — Vermeer’s intent was to make FrontPage the sort of tool that Dreamweaver became.
Anyway, I recommend the book highly. Having read other reviews of the book, it seems that Ferguson’s general tone rubs them the wrong way, but I confess that it didn’t bother me at all. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ferguson would admit today that he regrets all of the things he got wrong in the book, just as he admits in the book all of the things that he got wrong when he was running Vermeer. Ferguson is neither afraid to make mistakes nor to acknowledge them, and that’s a quality I respect.