I want to go back for a second. To the dot-com era, when new and unlimited entities harnessed powers that were barely ready to leave a lab and built billion-dollar industries that lacked any discernible business model.
There are survivors from those days, who thrived and grew and became titans. Amazon and Google are the leaders of the pack.
There are stragglers who have barely eked out an existence, in the years since their glory faded. Oath for example was the bastardised life raft AOL and Yahoo chose to navigate the next era of tech.
And then there are men like Josh Harris.
Josh Harris was a man with a vision. Or a man with multiple visions. He was a dreamer who crafted a multimillion-dollar startup, commissioned a bong the size of a room and imagined the video infested and fame tarnished unethical experiment we call social media.
Josh founded a company named Pseudo.com, the prototype of video streaming that we now recognise as a vertical dominated by Twitch, YouTube and Facebook. Pseudo was intended to fulfil the Warhol wet dream and provide every denizen of the digital age with their undeserved 15 minutes of rat-infested fame.
Built in a time when the potential of video far outstripped the technical capabilities of streaming it, Pseudo was so ahead of its time and so out of its philosophical lane that it was almost a nightmare alternate reality.
Pseudo raised millions upon millions of dollars, ostensibly for its tech development and content production, and it spent vast sums of that cash on parties that exemplified the image of New York City as a hive of drugs, sex and on-brand edge. It was a free-running island of lost children, a loose mash-up of Disney’s Pinocchio and MDMA.
There are stories that barely seem believable. Parties with Madonna. The elite of the New York art and business scene snorting anything they could get their hands on in a loft that AirBnB would wish they’d designed. The 24/7 live video stream of Josh’s life as he pissed and existed and dissolved publicly long before reality TV itself was the network ruling format of the day. There’s the story of Josh’s alter ego, a clown called Luvvie, a persona resplendent in full clown makeup that he would adopt for meetings with his own board and his investors.
The ride itself was the birth of the modern startup world. It’s fast-paced, it’s laser-focused on the young, the misfits and the people who know how to tell the right stories to the right people.
Josh rode that ride to the end, right through the dot-com crash, when the fragile empires the startups had built on insane valuations, unseasoned investors and stacks of money that only existed on paper came tumbling down like a house of cards. And in doing so, he became the quintessential founder, the tortured and painfully experimental artist that nobody would want to be seated next to at a dinner party, and a cautionary tale that far too many rich, white wantrepreneurs would read for the wrong reason.
By the time Josh had spent his money, by the time his company was gone, by the time he’d vanished to a compound in Africa, by the time he turned up almost homeless in Las Vegas, playing Poker to buy food and sleeping on a mattress on the floor, the startups had learned a valuable lesson: how to pretend that they’d learned a valuable lesson.
Pseudo.com and the other insanely valued disasters of the era are companies that we look back on with wry wisdom now, as we point to how far we’ve come. We want to prove that we’ll never be that unhinged again, and the only way we know how is to mock the depravity of what came before and pretend that we have nothing in common with it.
If you read the stories of men like Josh, and their companies, and you dive into the more extreme narratives of folks who kept their foot on the gas as their world fractured and fell apart, it’s hard not to see similarities between them and some of the more outlandish and quick-fingered cryptocurrency and NFT fly-by-nights and pointless companies. The allegory is undeniable.
I would advise establishing a relationship with these stories, to understand the stories we’ll be telling next. It seems foolish to suggest that the behaviour we’ve seen before won’t lead to the outcomes that we’ve seen before. I’m not referring to a dot-com wipe out on the same scale, but I am talking about an event that will be apocalyptic for at least a few.
Because when brash would-be visionaries are given more money than they know what to do with it’s a marriage, a divorce and a suicide of purpose, fuelled by arrogance, a distinguished lack of thrift, and designer substances.