Friday, 11 December 2009

“The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest”, Po Bronson

Written in 1997 Po Bronson's second novel has, unusually for a tech novel, stood the test of time remarkably well, feeling as fresh now as it did in the heady period before reality crashed in and ruined the party. A lot of this is down to the fact that Bronson focuses on the human aspects of starting a business and doesn't allow the wonders of the technology to obscure the story.

Most of all however "The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" is a highly prescient novel. Positing a world where computer hardware becomes considerably less significant and cheaper, where software and content no longer comes on disc but is delivered over the web, and ultimately where open source development can legitimately worry major manufacturers. Fast forward to 2009, where the majority of PCs are netbooks, where processor speed (does anyone know what the clock speed of their machine is?) is considerably less important than broadband connection speed, and where open source software such as Firefox can capture a major market share, and it becomes clear what Bronson was talking about all those years ago.

There are some anachronisms in here, as well as some points that firmly anchor it in the late '90s. By 1997 the Fiat X1/9 would have been very long in the tooth (if still a rather cool car), the clothing the characters wear is indescribably awful, and it still causes a wry nod of the head when the reader is reminded that in the late twentieth century Apple was a basket case of a company, suffering a lingering death before Jobs' return, the iMac, and iPod all served to reinvent it as, for some, the acme of cool.

Despite all this, there is a real tech story in the subtext. The quest to develop the next big chip in the late 1990s led to Intel's Pentium Pro, which despite a lot of brave words from Intel, was regarded as being slower than the previous '586' Pentium chips in running Windows application – even if this stutter in processor development has been long forgotten. Bronson skilfully picks up this somewhat geeky story and uses it as an underpinning the politics and business realities behind his fictional La Honda research institute.

"The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest" could very easily have been a dry niche story, loosely fictionalising events of interest to technophiles and MBA students, but what transforms it is the dry understated humour that suffuses the text. The interplay between the generally very likable characters rings true to life and at times some of the casual vignettes are laugh out loud funny.

Undoubtedly running a start up technology company is hard work, but if you have to go through it, you could do a lot worse than be guided by Po Bronson fictionalised account, in fact, I'd go so far as to say it should be required reading.

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