IN MAY OF 2000, a young computer programmer named Philip Kaplan launched a little Web site. He e-mailed the URL to six friends. He went on vacation.
Five days later, Philip Kaplan returned home to find that his little Web site had 20,000 registered users.
Thanks to FuckedCompany.com, 25-year-old Philip Kaplan is now the king of a bona fide Internet empire.
The Web site, which Kaplan created to track layoffs and bankruptcies during the height of the dot-com bust ó a kind of takeoff on the popular "celebrity dead-pool" game ó evolved into a daily, sometimes even hourly must-read for those working in the industry. And with its leaks, rumors, and gossip, FuckedCompany was chosen as site of the year by Rolling Stone and Yahoo! Internet Life; Time magazine had the site at number six in its "Best of 2000" issue.
Riding high on his success, Kaplanís now compiled the stories of many of his fucked companies into a book, Fíd Companies: Spectacular Dot-Com Failures (Simon & Schuster). But despite his seemingly charmed life, Kaplan still has one wish yet to be fulfilled: to become a famous heavy-metal rock-star drummer.
Q: Letís go back a ways. Tell me, first of all, how FuckedCompany got started, and why.
A: The site started as a joke; itís actually still kind of a joke. I used to sort of unofficially play this game with my friends, which was, weíd see some dot-com company with a stupid business plan get funded for millions of dollars, and weíd all end up saying, "Oh yeah, how long do you think theyíre going to last?" Being programmers, we could never figure out exactly how these companies were planning to make money. So anyway, thatís what happened, and I decided to build a site that was a game, where you could bet on which company was going to have problems and when, and accumulate points. The site still has the game component to it, although itís sort of secondary to the whole thing.
Q: Why do you think it took off the way it did?
A: I think a lot of people saw things the same way I did, which was just, what the hell is going on here? But nobody was really talking about it at the time, especially in maybe late April, which was when people just started recognizing that the whole thing was BS. So there were a lot of people both in the business and not in the business who thought everything was BS, and wanted to learn more, so they came to my site, and then there were a lot of people who were being laid off and screwed and lied to and ripped off, and they wanted a voice, and no place better than my site.
Q: How has your life changed, given how popular itís become?
A: Well, at the time I was running a business called PK Interactive, which was a consulting company, a Web shop. We used to make Web sites for clients, and we were doing well; I had five employees and a lot of different clients, and then I launched FuckedCompany and slowly started building revenue streams into it, most importantly the $25 and $75 subscriptions, where you can pay to read the rumors even before I read them, all the stuff that comes in to me, about 300 to 500 rumors every day. And eventually the site sort of started its own empire, and now what I do mainly is run and maintain sites like FuckedCompany, HTTPads.com, Postget.com, AmazonScan.com, and even BeefSavage.com.
Q: Do you ever feel guilty that youíre essentially getting rich and famous because other people are getting fucked?
A: No, not at all. Iím not necessarily getting successful from other people getting screwed over. What FuckedCompany is is, itís a site for the employees. Obviously all of the information that I get, those 300 to 500 rumors every day, come from people in the companies who really want me to write about their companies. Theyíre getting screwed over, but Iím clearly providing an important service for them, otherwise they wouldnít be writing me every day wanting me to post stuff about their companies. The only people who might have an issue with the site are the CEOs and the higher-ups at some of these companies that are doing the firing and the ripping off and all that, but they deserve it. I havenít fired anyone, I havenít flushed millions of dollars of venture capital down the toilet. I mean, I havenít really done anything bad.
Q: You actually havenít ever gotten fired, have you?
A: Well, I was able to narrowly escape layoffs at a few different companies by quitting.
Q: But you feel an alliance with the people whoíve been fired?
A: Oh, Iíve worked for many a fucked company, yes.
Q: So why the book?
A: I originally came up with the idea for the book because I had a lot of information and I had a lot to say, and also Iím asked the same questions over and over again, which are: what are some of the biggest failures and the most expensive ones and the funniest ones, and plus Iíve just heard so many stories. I mean, basically what I do for a living is I read peopleís stories. So I wrote a book, which is a combination of my observations and other peopleís observations and things Iíve read and things Iíve seen and things Iíve talked to people about. Plus, I thought it would be cool to write a book, that way I could start saying Iím an author, and I could maybe pick up chicks that way.
Q: What advice would you offer someone who suspects theyíre working for what could become a fucked company?
A: Well, the first piece of advice Iíd give, either for somebody whoís working for a company like that or especially running a company like that, is to listen to your programmers. During the whole bubble in í99 and 2000, when everybody was buying into this crap and stock prices were soaring and everybody thought that the whole dot-com thing was real, every programmer I knew, myself included ó Iím no oracle here, because I was in the same position as a lot of guys ó every programmer I knew, knew what was going on. We all said, "Why did it cost $8 million to build an e-commerce site? I donít get it, because I can do it in a weekend." Or, [as an employee,] I could simply take a peek in [the companyís] database and see how much weíre selling, and see that weíre not selling anything, and saying, "Well, howís that going to work?" To have a successful Internet company, youíre going to need good salespeople and good marketing people and good advertising people and good designers and good writers and good everything, but in the end, theyíre all there to support a computer program. Theyíre all there to support one computer form, a piece of software that has been written by a programmer. And a lot of times the programmers are overlooked, even though theyíre the only ones who really know whatís going on. So thatís the biggest piece of advice Iíd give.
Q: What company surprised you most by not becoming a fucked company?
A: Um ... none of them. One question that people ask me is they say, "Well, all the things that youíve built on FuckedCompany, the revenue streams and the book and all the different ways you made money from it and had success from it, did you learn from all the companies that youíve written about, did you learn what to do and what not to do?" Absolutely no, I havenít learned anything. Okay, fine, maybe Iíve learned that I donít take money out of my bank account and send it in envelopes to different people, I mean, just give shit away ó Iím not opening a store down on the corner in New York City that gives away free candy. I mean, these are not things that you have to learn; these are just common-sense things. So are there any companies that Iím surprised went out of business or not? No ó itís generally pretty obvious. If you look at a company and thereís no way to pay them, and they provide a service, they are going to go out of business. Unless theyíre bought. Part of the whole thing at the beginning was, oh, weíre just building a company to sell it to Microsoft or something like that. But how does that work?
Q: Why do you think it took people so long to figure that out? It seems like such a basic concept.
A: Well, itís a lot like an auto mechanic: when you bring your car in to an auto mechanic, you just kind of trust what they say. Itís a little different, though, because the programmers here, while theyíre auto mechanics, theyíre also employees, so their boss is telling them what to do, theyíre doing it, and now their boss, some Stanford MBA guy, is saying to the world, to the press, to his investors and to everyone else, "Oh, weíre synergizing new paradigms with next-generation B-to-B," saying all this bullshit-speak, which basically means nothing, but to your average guy whoís reading the Boston Phoenix, heís like, "Okay, cool, I guess that makes sense." But it was to such a bigger extent than [with] an auto mechanic. An auto mechanic might say that you have a leaky hose in your radiator when really you donít, and charge you an extra couple hundred bucks. But this was more like, doing something that takes a weekend to build, but telling the owner of the car that his flux capacitor is broken and itís going to cost $3 million to fix, and heís like, "All right, cool."
Q: What are your thoughts on Enron?
A: Oh, I donít have a whole lot of thoughts about Enron.
Q: I find that hard to believe.
A: The interesting thing with Enron is after the whole thing happened, I went to my site; I was curious if anyone had tipped me off to that. There were a whole bunch of tips in there, which were available to subscribers. I wonder if any of the subscribers actually read them. There were a lot of tips in the database about Enron before it happened, saying, "Hey, I just overheard a conversation in one of the conference rooms where Enron was yelling at Arthur Andersen people, like telling them, ĎYou call this an audit?í "
Q: Are you ever going to become a famous heavy-metal rock-star drummer?
A: Iím absolutely going to. Look at BeefSavage. Thatís my heavy-metal alter-ego. Heís a drummer, guitarist, singer, and bass player.
Q: So thatís still the ultimate aspiration?
Philip Kaplan appears at WordsWorth Books, in Cambridge, on April 25 at 7 p.m. Call (617) 354-5201. Tamara Wieder, who once worked for a fucked company, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org