Lessons of Survival, From the Dot-Com Attic

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IN 2002, after the dot-com bubble burst, most people were trying hard to forget the preceding years of seemingly irrational entrepreneurial exuberance. But not David Kirsch.

Mr. Kirsch, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, saw a way to ensure that the next generation of entrepreneurs could avoid the problems of that bubble, or “at least make new mistakes”: He would document what did and didn’t work during the flurry of business activity around the new technology called the Internet.

In June of that year, he started the Digital Archive of the Birth of the Dot Com Era, usually called the Dot Com Archive (dotcomarchive.org). Shortly thereafter, a partner of a venture capital firm that was closing its doors donated every business plan that the firm had received from 1999 to 2002 — documents covering some 1,100 companies.

Today, Mr. Kirsch says, the archive contains some 6.4 million e-mail messages, memos, slide presentations, photographs, marketing materials and databases representing thousands of companies. These data have begun to reveal interesting insights into the dot-com bubble.

Azi Gera, a Ph.D. candidate who works with Mr. Kirsch, used the archive to reveal the key role that social networks play in venture capital financing. Looking at a data set of 1,018 companies, Mr. Gera determined that not a single entrepreneur received venture capital funding by submitting a business plan “over the transom.” By contrast, about 5 percent of entrepreneurs who knew the venture capitalist or gained a personal introduction received funding.

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