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New lessons from the The New, New Thing – Michael Lewis – 1999

By Ted Hessing

It seems that in this age of newness, any book about technology is outdated as soon as it’s published to your Kindle. That said, The New, New thing should be on the book stand of any aspiring developer, tech investor, or fan of sordid tales of Silicon Valley during the late, great tech boom.

Micheal Lewis came to fame writing a collection of entertaining non-fiction accounts beginning with Liar’s Poker – a story about the excesses of the US bond industry in the 1980’s – see Josh’s review here. Josh has also written about 5 entertaining resources to understanding the economy, which mention’s Lewis’ most recent work – The Big Short. You may also know him from his books that were recently turned into movies like The Blind Side and Money Ball. In the New, New Thing, Lewis pits geeks against venture capitalists in the setting of the tech boom of the turn of the century.

To review chapter and verse of this book – or any others of Lewis’ would be to do you a dis-service and spoil the tale. Instead, here are a few lessons I learned reading and re-reading the New, New Thing.

Lesson 1: The American Dream is Alive and Well

Or at least it was in 1999 ;’) The book’s central figure, Jim Clark, came from absolute poverty in Texas to found not one, but three companies valued at more than $1 billion. The New, New thing details his persona and that of his contemporaries as they follow their insatiable appetites; some for the challenge of new invention and others as a thirst for wealth.

This tale of the rise of an expelled student being raised in what can be charitably called a “troubled home” to a first career as an enlisted Navy man being eventually being discovered as having a natural talent for mathematical reminds the reader of Good Will Hunting. But that was just a beginning for Clark. The following years find him as a 38 year old unsuccessful college professor and two-time divorcee goes on to create three separate billion-dollar corporations. The narration of the book begins as the 3rd company is taking shape and revisits Clark’s anarchist career lead him to adventures far beyond the lot he was assigned at birth.

Lesson 2: Effort is Rewarded

Clark begins his post-professorial career out as a solid technical expert with a talent for seeing shifts in society, and how to profit from them. Coupled with his personality – or perhaps in spite if it, he is able to attract talented people to build phenomenal working teams. Additionally, Clark shares the wealth of these creations with the engineers who designed them – in direct contrast to a system that is more inclined to favor the investment banking executives who take the enterprise public.

If this sounds similar to the main plot of the movie The Social Network, you’re not alone. Clark’s persona is reminiscent of Zukerberg’s and the results are strikingly similar; an individual with a great idea and great effort can move the entire investment to a new, previously-unseen narrative.

Lesson 3: Buyer Beware

The New, New Thing is provides an insight into the process of bringing an idea to market. From concept to venture capital backing to packaging and selling the idea to venture capitalists is step one. Actually creating a product takes a back seat in the valuation of such a company compared to convincing investment bankers of the viability of taking the company public in an IPO. A successful technology stock launch may have less to do with the long term viability of a company or the usefulness of it’s products and more to do with how many people can be made rich along the way.

The New, New thing was recommended to me not by a fellow website developer nor even a Wall Street guru. I picked up on the advice of a friend working through his MBA. His rational was that The New, New thing was about the lessons of perceiving the world in new ways and how a shift of perception can have long-ranging consequences. It’s an interesting book for anyone who is interested not only in history but for having a hand in shaping it.

About the author

Ted Hessing is a small business website designer in Charlotte, NC. He writes a weekly blog on how to make the most out of the web for your small business here.

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  • Ted Hessing January 30, 2012, 10:03 am

    Thanks for posting, Josh! I think this would be a great read for anyone ahead of the Facebook IPO coming this week.