In early 1998, Tripod, a company I helped founders Bo Peabody and Dick Sabot build, was sold to search engine Lycos for $58 million dollars. We were perhaps a little early in selling the company – a much smaller rival in the online community space, TheGlobe.com, went public later that year at a valuation of $850 million. (Of course, a few years later, they were bankrupt, out of business and neck-deep in securities litigation.)
Had we waited a little longer or been a bit braver, taking the company public, perhaps we’d have made more money. But I remember feeling like we’d dodged a bullet. Dick, our chairman, is a brilliant development economist and had me firmly convinced that we were in a market bubble that could burst any minute. For the year “key personnel” were prohibited from selling their stock, I watched the stock ticker every morning, waiting for Lycos’s stock – and everyone else’s – to collapse. Instead, it increased seven times in value the year I held it, and ultimately financed the launch of Geekcorps.
I was long gone by 2000, when Lycos was bought by Spanish internet firm Terra (a branch of Spanish telephone company, Telefonica) for $12.5 billion dollars, but a number of friends from the Tripod days were still working within the company. My more ambitious friends were learning Spanish in the hopes of building better relationships with the new management; my more optimistic friends thought the company would “grow into” its valuation by expanding into Latin and Central America.
It didn’t, and Terra/Telefonica sold Lycos and “related assets” – including Tripod – to South Korean firm Daum Communications for $95 million, less than 1% of what Terra had paid four years ago. In the intervening years, the tech bubble finally imploded, and thousands of dot.coms dissapeared without a trace. Lycos grew less and less popular, and lately has ranked seventh amongst search engines and portals in traffic.
Some analysts are suggesting the main value Lycos has to Daum is the 170,000 paying users of Tripod and Angelfire (a rival homepage service I helped Lycos buy and integrate into the network…). It’s oddly satisfying to know that the project I started working on late in 1994 is the one of the few pieces worth salvaging in 2004.
Increasingly I wonder whether Tripod was five years too early, instead of just six months premature. Tripod was interesting to Lycos as an acquisition target because it had a lot of traffic – about 15 million people looked at Tripod web pages every day when I left the company. But Tripod was interesting to me – and to most, though not all, of my colleagues – because it demonstrated that the most interesting things on the Internet might be put up by individual users, not by corporations.
Weblogs have gone a long way towards proving this point. And while they’re a damn sight more sophisticated than the pages we offered users in 1996, the basic, radical idea that individuals should have a space where they could express themselves on the net without needing to know how to administer a server is one that Tripod and others helped pioneer almost a decade ago.
It’s probably a good thing that people don’t pay multiple billions of dollars for loss-making companies nowadays. And undoubtably, the vast majority of companies that sprang to life like mushrooms after a long rain deserved to die a quick death when venture capital dried up. But I miss the creativity and craziness that came about when twenty-somethings with no business experience thought they might be able to create something new and beautiful with a wacky idea and a few thousand lines of code.
Or, as the bumper sticker on my truck says, “I want to be irrationally exuberant again.”
Good luck to my friends at Tripod/Lycos who’ve managed to survive the voyage from Williamstown to Waltham to Spain to South Korea. I guess it really is a worldwide web…