For a while there it seemed as though one could actually achieve fame and fortune with a great idea, hard work and persistence. Now, looking at the winners and losers of the internet years, I am not so sure. One can make a strong argument that the boom favoured gadflies and incompetents; the fearful, uncommitted, and greedy; and those with good timing.
I look at my own experience. In late 1998, I helped found two organisations, Moreover Technologies, the information service, and First Tuesday, the internet networking event. The first was a passion, a business to which I was totally committed; the business is pretty robust, but my shares are only worth anything on paper. The second business was an accident, growing out of an occasional cocktail party; in mid-2000, out of greed and nervousness as much as anything else, I and the other founders sold the company, and received an unexpected windfall.
Financially, I have done better out of timing than hard work. I am not the only one. Most of the entrepreneurs who have made money out of the internet are those who cashed in early.
First, the born speculators, with little emotional commitment to their business, who had the detachment to recognise the top of the market. A prime UK example is Paul Sykes, an old-fashioned wheeler-dealer, backer of Planet Online, who sold the company because he thought the internet bubble would burst. Sykes made an estimated pounds 140 million.
The gadflies: Tim Jackson, a journalist and one of the smartest UK observers of the technology industry, was early to the internet, impressed by the business model of eBay in the US, and he set up an online auction service in the UK called QXL. He was the first to admit that he was a stronger generator of ideas than manager of people. Apax Partners, QXL's venture investor, brought in a professional manager as CEO.
Bruising for Jackson's ego, perhaps, but the switch gave him the freedom to sell shares that he would have had to keep if he'd remained in an executive role. Jackson's shares were worth as much as pounds 272 million at the peak.
He sold enough stock to make himself one of the winners.
By contrast, Brent Hoberman of Lastminute.com has inhuman levels of commitment to the online travel business that he founded with Martha Lane Fox. Admirable, but his personal identification with it means that he cannot cash in without raising questions about Lastminute's viability.
The uncommitted: in which category I would have to include myself, bought out of First Tuesday while it was still valuable because I was caught up in another business. An even better example emerges from Startup.com, the hit US documentary that should reach UK screens later this year. Startup.com tells the story of govWorks, an ambitious but doomed venture designed to reinvent government services. The only people to make money out of this fiasco were the software vendors. The third, forgotten, founder was a rather awkward Chinese programmer who was bought out for a sum that seemed cheap at the time.
Finally, the incompetents. One of the most financially successful entrepreneurs I know is one who was never able to hold down a steady job. An intelligent but restless individual, he had bounced from career to career. An unconvincing pitchman and obviously erratic manager, he was unable to raise venture finance for his company. When the internet giants such as AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! came after his business, he quickly sold out.
Because he had never taken funding, he still owned the overwhelming majority of the shares. There were no investors to demand their cut before he saw his gain. And he sold early enough that his lock-ins - the restrictions that stop entrepreneurs selling their stakes until an agreed date - expired at about the peak of the internet market.
All these stories sit uneasily beside the technology industry's model of an entrepreneur, triumphant through sheer force of will. Silicon Valley has always held that execution - precision, diligence and persistence - is the key to achievement.
But the record of the internet generation underlines an old and depressing truth: business success, in the internet just as in financial speculation, is down to timing as much as any other quality. In the go-go years of the new economy, commentators talked incessantly of the first-mover advantage that accrued to the entrepreneur first into a particular market. They forgot to mention the virtue of being not just first in, but first out.