Like a modern-day Dickens, Stephan Paternot witnessed the best and worst of times.
A year after graduating from Cornell in 1996, the co-founder of Web site Theglobe.com was worth nearly $100 million. His company's stock set a Wall Street record when it jumped 606% in its first day of public trading. At 24, he became emblematic of the cocky boy geniuses using the World Wide Web to change the rules of business, media and life itself.
In 2000, though, Paternot stepped aside as chief executive of Theglobe.com, and the site shut down a year later after losing millions of dollars. Gone were Paternot's paper fortune, his fashion-model girlfriend and the fawning reports on CNBC.
"It suddenly dawned on me that I might get nothing out of this, not a penny. For all intents and purposes, I was broke. . . . But of course, everyone still perceived me as a billionaire," Paternot wrote in his memoir.
His book, "A Very Public Offering: A Rebel's Story of Business Excess, Success, and Reckoning," is one of many being written by former dot-commers searching for meaning in the giddy years from 1995 to 2000.
No one could confuse these tales with Nicholas Nickleby's "demd horrid grind" amid the filthy, dangerous 19th-century factories of the Industrial Revolution. These modern journals--including "Dot.Bomb: My Days and Nights at an Internet Goliath" and "Boo Hoo: A Dot.Com Story from Concept to Catastrophe"--aspire to be the first drafts of an equally momentous era that inspired both great technology and terrible investments.
The books themselves are inherently ironic. The authors once seemed poised to make old media obsolete. But they had to turn to ink and paper to memorialize businesses that evaporated in the ether of the Internet.
"Even in a digital age, paper matters," said J. David Kuo, author of "Dot.Bomb" and former Value America executive. "Tactile paper can relay history better than anything else can."
Some fret that these books--equal parts history, confession and damage control--present a skewed picture. Rather than provide serious analysis from inside the dot-com meltdown, most of the authors try to distance themselves from the billions of dollars in equity that simply disappeared.
"It's just a celebration of the cluelessness of the people who created this whole mess in the first place," said Bill Lessard, founder of Netslaves.com, a Web site catering to the information industry's technical workers. "Instead of trying to glam their stupid companies on people, they're trying to glam themselves as products on people."
History, though, is in the hands of those who hold the pen. Despite their portrayal in magazine articles and television spots as titans of the "new economy," Paternot, Kuo and others describe themselves as innocents who got caught up in the euphoria of big dreams and easy money.
"Despite the hype, headlines and hysteria, this was just a gold rush we were in, not a gold mine we had found," Kuo wrote. "We might look like hip, chic, cutting-edge, new-economy Internet workers, but in fact, a lot of us were kin to those poor, freezing fools in Alaska who had staked everything on turning up a glittering chunk of gold."
Online retailer Value America, which touted itself as "the Internet superstore," sold everything from laptop computers to barbecue grills, but never actually held inventory. Merchandise was shipped to customers directly from the suppliers.
But the site's selection was limited, orders could take weeks to arrive, and the company spent lavishly on advertising--including a NASCAR sponsorship. When Value America posted a wider-than-expected quarterly loss in August 1999, Kuo recalled being shocked by the reaction of the analysts and the business media, which expected better.
"The world had changed," he wrote in his book. "It wasn't just about revenue anymore. It was about gross margin and controlled losses and growing revenue. It was like having to grow a real business. No one ever told us we had to do that."
Paternot's Theglobe.com, one of the first Internet "communities," offered online chat and games and personal Web pages for free. Advertising, subscriptions and a venture into e-commerce wasn't enough to support the enterprise, which sparked the frenzy of dot-com public offerings in 1998 and 1999.
In the last pages of his memoir, Paternot comes to this conclusion about taking his company public, which ultimately cost investors millions: "In the final analysis, it was a necessity. It had to be done. From a personal stance, I sometimes wish I could take it back. But . . . whatever."
According to Paternot, running a multimillion-dollar dot-com wasn't as glamorous as the media made it out to be. In his book, Paternot recalls angry phone calls from investors after the company's stock began to fall. "Every morning, we'd walk in, ready to face the day, and the first thing we'd hear was, 'I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! I will kill you!' "