-- The New York Times Book Review
Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internetby Michael Wolff
In the '90s, the Internet has become the wrestling ground for smart, young entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. There is less competition, few regulations, and practically no conventional wisdom. The stakes are high: A promising company can go public for hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is just as easy to lose it all overnight. Michael Wolff, a former
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In the '90s, the Internet has become the wrestling ground for smart, young entrepreneurs looking to make a killing. There is less competition, few regulations, and practically no conventional wisdom. The stakes are high: A promising company can go public for hundreds of millions of dollars, but it is just as easy to lose it all overnight. Michael Wolff, a former journalist, was one of the first to jump onboard. As Wolff scrambled to finance his own fledgling company, Wolff New Media -- which grew 20-fold in less than two years -- he knew he had found the seminal business story of the decade.
Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet is Wolff's candid, fascinating account of the bare-knuckles world of Internet start-up companies. It is the story of one man's journey from rags to riches to rags. With the wit and wry wisdom that comes only from hands-on experience, Wolff captures the excitement and unreality that engulfed an industry that popped into being virtually overnight and has grown at a pace unequalled by any other business in history.
Wolff records the birth and growing pains of this brave new world and speculates on its uncertain future. He describes his experiences trying to raise capital and make the business deals that would allow his company to survive. Here his story intersects with many of the pivotal personalities of the Internet era. Readers meet Lewis Rossetto, founder of Wired; Halsey Minor, CNET's CEO; AOL executives; Time Warner's new media team; Microsoft's content gurus; and the bankers and venture capitalists who make the industry run.
Writing with the candor of Michael Lewis in Liar's Poker, Wolff spares no one. He takes us behind the scenes to witness the wheeling and dealing and backstabbing, the promises made but not kept, and the desperation to finalize the deal before the cash runs out. As much as this is a personal tale, it is also a brilliantly written business book, about one man trying to make sense out of the overnight phenomenon of the Internet.
-- The New York Times Book Review
From 1994 to 1996, he changed the focus of his company and expanded his work force. He had to seek capital but could not get enough to keep things afloat owing to negative effects of the "burn rate," the money a company spends each month exceeding its revenue. Wolff's detailed, witty, and very readable work not only chronicles his unsuccessful attempt via relationships with venture capitalists, investors, America Online, and other players and companies to secure revenue but provides a thought-provoking and critical commentary on entrepreneurship in this business.
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Wolff, a journalist and the founder and former CEO of Wolff New Media (Where We Stand), here chronicles both the day-to-day struggles of an entrepreneur and the heady early burgeoning of the Internet. Neither a polemic about the Information Age and the increasingly dominant role the Internet plays in it nor a business manual, his account is a business story, a first-person narrative about the difficulties for anyone of starting one's own business. His instincts as a journalist serve him well in the book's conception and in its writing. Realizing the potential of the Internet, Wolff dove in headfirst, only to find himself playing a role in what is perhaps the business story of the 1990s. Like Hollywood moguls of the past, new-media moguls have a flamboyance and verve that Wolff aptly captures. Of one such character he writes, "He had achieved an air of fabulousness, with a kind of hollandaise richness, even Robert Maxwell ripeness." And while Wolff often veers off into rather purple prose, especially when describing players such as Wired founders Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, his eye for color and detail keeps this rags-to-riches tale amusing. He is at his best when he provides insights into how the Internet industry began to take shape; his observations about Time Inc. and AOL possess an astuteness that only someone long in the know could possibly have. Moreover, Wolff recreates the sense of excitementand the attendant chaosthat helped characterize the Internet as the disparate worlds of venture capitalists, college-kid entrepreneurs, and seasoned executives alternately clashed and came together on its behalf.
An intelligent and entertaining account of the business and culture of the Internet that skillfully merges a personal tale with the larger story.
Amy Cortese Business Week Burn Rate is a hilarious and frightening account of the life of an Internet startup.
Kurt Andersen columnist at The New Yorker Burn Rate is the real deal: a smart, thoughtful, funny, knowing, clear-eyed, candid and altogether exhilarating insider's chronicle of the new media business that is, the new media "business." If there's more honest and entertaining book on the digital revolution, I haven't seen it.
Michael Lewis author of Liar's Poker and Trail Fever Burn Rate is a delight to read. Michael Wolff shows that, in addition to a great deal of junk, the Internet may yet produce literature.
Peter Martin Financial Times Wolff has given us the best account of both the lure and the frustration of the Internet.
Peter McGrath Newsweek ...the alternately hilarious and appalling story of Wolff's efforts to take his small Web publishing company into the big time by courting investors.
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From Chapter One: A Diamond as Big as the Ritz
I am a reluctant participant in a conference of CEOs of information and technology companies being held at the Ritz in Laguna Beach, one of the poshest in the Ritz chain. I'm embarrassed by my hunger for affection and approval, preferably in the form of another round of financing for my company. Powerful forces are represented here -- principals of venture capital funds and managers of corporate strategic investment pools; these are ordinary men and women with extraordinary powers, who, if they so desired, could let me sleep through the night.
But who am I to be singled out? Most of my fellow CEOs at the conference are up all night too, disturbed not just by earnings that are down or market issues that need to be addressed but by a countdown, measured in weeks, of how much cash they have left. We are the leaders of an industry without income.
Some of the entrepreneurs here, though in similar extremis, hold themselves with striking poise and equanimity, while others buttonhole the venture capitalists, demanding their attention and delivering, in the verdant Ritz hallways, heated sales pitches. In the end, who will be left standing -- the hot and bothered or the cool?
It seems like high school all over again. The VCs are upperclassmen, study hall proctors, varsity athletes. A casual word or familiar gesture from any one of them can confer status, meaning, value. To be ignored is to not exist. The stakes are as high as they were in high school: existence itself.
Attendance at this particular conference has already conferred status. In the technology industry you could (and people do) ath's payroll but growth, expansion, dominance, and my chance to walk away with enough wealth to support generations to come. (This is not a long-term plan, but one meant to be accomplished, ideally, by next year's meeting at the Ritz.)
The desperation in the air here is perfectly complemented by the thrill of seeing several faces desperate at this time last year (some who a year ago did not have dreams large enough to make them desperate) now elevated, esteemed, and valued.
Tall and handsome, with prep school straight hair, Halsey Minor, the thirty-one-year-old CEO of CNet, a company that produces a cable show and a Web site about computers, takes the podium in the Ritz's oversized reception room, otherwise used for the cream of Orange County's weddings and bar mitzvahs. Minor has a net worth, in negotiable securities, of $40 million. In comparison, my own paper worth of $5.4 million seems crabbed and amateurish, especially considering that my credit cards are all maxed out and I'm sucking cash from every ATM in Orange County.
Two years ago Halsey Minor was an executive recruiter. Between making cold calls on behalf of larger corporations to executives at other corporations, he had an idea to create a television show about computers. That idea led directly to another idea: a site on the Internet all about computers. Duh.
What allows Halsey to get rich on the obvious? Capital? Tenacity? Timing? The Halsey Minor performance is stellar and intimidating. He's the head boy. His confidence and certainty are extreme. Unusual, you might think, because we are part of an industry so young, so unformed, so not real, that we're not even sure who should pay whom yet. Fact of the matter, there is no real m oney yet to be paid with. The question is not, How do we sell more of what we have to sell? or How do we reach more people? or How do we produce products more cheaply? but What is the economic basis for existing? Who is buying? Who is selling?
Of course, this is the opportunity, too. Truer moguls, more seasoned entrepreneurs, vaster sums of capital have left the territory wide open to eccentrics and opportunists -- and freelance writers like me.
Take a computer, send information through it -- hell, send all the information ever recorded through it. And then what? What is your business model? is the salutation in almost all conversations about this newest medium. What is the economic justification for what you do? What is the value proposition? How will you convince people to pay you more than you're spending? If the universe of information is now free, who will pay for your insights, wit, pith, truth?
When will we invent the game shows, soap operas, variety shows, newscasts, and sitcoms -- not to mention the art -- of this new medium? Is this like 1947 in the television business (meaning another six years before a mass market emerges)? Or are we in a year like 1953, on the verge of changing the nation? Or is it like 1971 in the cable business or -- a horrible thought -- 1985 in a business known as videotext, a precursor to the digital information business that sucked up hundreds of millions of dollars from a galaxy of major media companies before evaporating.
Halsey Minor, in an open-collared striped shirt, is not anxiety ridden. At the heart of his confidence, of course, is his company's $200 million market value on $4 million in revenues. His presentation today deals with the conundrum of the CPM, or cost per thousand, model of advertising. If BMW, say, is paying $25 per thousand "impressions" or page views on the Web (an impression is registered when an individual Web viewer clicks to an individual "page" of a Web site) -- a rate similar to what BMW would pay for space in a consumer magazine -- we (Web site proprietors) are penalized if we only deliver one hundred people. But what if one of those one hundred people will definitely buy a car? The CPM model encourages us to build larger, more costly, less efficient audiences, while digital technology allows us to build an ever more targeted, economical, buyer positioned audience.
Although the argument that the CPM model has no place in a wired world has some elegance, no one takes it all that seriously. No products have disappeared off America's supermarket shelves because of the Internet. Few cars have left their showrooms (cars are a commodity that many people believe is especially suitable for Internet sales), no commercial fads have been created, and no buying habits have shifted as a result of the Internet. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that advertising works (i.e., gets you more and costs you less) on the Internet. But that is not the issue. The point is that if advertising works -- a carefully minimized big if -- it is likely to work for Halsey Minor and CNet.
"I've got thirty-nine million dollars in the bank, and my competitors don't. I've got people coming to me who were previously thinking of going public and are now offering to sell their businesses to me. I always hoped the door would close right after us," Halsey told Red Herring, a magazine that covers Internet financings.
There is a hiera rchy here of companies that have made it out through the public portal with big war chests in the bank, companies that have secured the first round or two of professional financing, and companies that are little more than an idea. It does not matter that not one of these companies -- funded or not -- is profitable. The hierarchy, the aristocracy, depends on being first.
Land, as in most aristocracies, is the measure, Not trade. Who has the resources to claim the most valuable property -- occupy space through the promotion of brands, the building of name recognition, the creation of an identity -- is the name of the game. Conquer first, reap later.
The names are already building household recognition: Yahoo! Wired. Netscape.
Names as powerful now as the Dumont Network, a major player in the earliest days of television, and the Kaypro computer, at the top of the PC business in the early 1980s, in their day.
"We may not know all the winners, but we certainly know some of them," says Halsey Minor with a uniquely satisfied grin. "Questions?"
A tall, crane-like woman unfolds from the audience.
"Oh, Suzanne. Suzanne, be kind," says the conference moderator, an Internet industry journalist.
The sense that everyone knows everyone here is, for those who feel they know no one, painful. And while I feel that way -- unrecognized and unknown -- I do know Suzanne. She's a magazine editor who has recently acquired the digital faith/While sitting with her in the Harvard Club one day in the late 1980s, I told her that personal computers would connect us all and replace media as we know it and that we would all be in the computer business before we turned forty. I was teasing, of course.
"Consid ering," Suzanne says to Halsey Minor as she puts on large glasses and looks down at some notes she has scribbled, "that almost every company here is dependent on the capital markets rather than a customer base, and considering that the capital markets have turned cold to new technology companies over the last forty-five days, can you talk a little about the future of this industry?"
"And your point?" Minor gives a short laugh, a snort.
At the long tables with laptop power cords, I am seated next to a dwarf in a wheelchair, a bizarre counterpoint to the disembodied digital future. A reporter for one of the industry trade magazines, he has been offering, sotto voce, a running commentary on the digital aristocracy. At first his whispering seemed unruly and bitter to me, but I am secretly starting to appreciate it. "Where do you think Halsey Minor will be in five years? Is greatness within his grasp? I can't decide," he says.
"Couldn't begin to guess," I say, hearing and regretting my envy.
"How long do you guys have left?" He asks pointedly, merrily, about my business.
"Well," I respond cautiously, "we're not unsatisfied with our model."
"Really, we're in fairly good shape."
"How many people have you got on staff now?"
"Over seventy," I say with pride, even though I realize that each person is another parcel the boat cannot handle.
"What's your burn rate?"
"All in, a half million a month or so," I shrug.
"Rest in peace, baby."
"It's not so bad, honestly."
He practically hoots at the next presenter. "Do you know this guy? Have you heard about him? Life is so unfair."
On the podium the stage hands are making a quick adjustment to the presentation laptop whi le Seth Godin, a thin, sharp-featured, prematurely bald thirty-five-year-old, one of the new impresarios of the industry, chats amiably with Halsey Minor. A year ago, Godin had written me a note about people and business interests we had in common and followed it up with a call and an invitation to lunch. He wanted to know whom I knew, wanted to know what paths I had crossed and with what inspiration I had carved my business out of whole cloth. He would have taken any crumb. I was unforthcoming, however, and uncharitable.
Now, with an idea to create game shows using e-mail over the Internet, he has nailed down $4 million in VC financing and is in a position to play Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, television's greatest game show impresarios, to Halsey Minor's William Paley, the founder of CBS.
Godin and I had run into each other earlier in the day. Disturbingly, he told me how many people said we looked alike. What's worse, he lectured me on money-raising skills, from which I inferred that his venture capital sources, whom I'd met and petitioned at some length, had found me less than inspiring. "You're so laid back," he said. "You're not selling enough. Hey, where's the passion? That's what people are ponying up for. Passion. They have to know that you are just so hot for it."
What today's presenters have in common is that they are considered "content," as opposed to technology, people. They represent the ideas and concepts and formats that will draw people to this new medium. They will provide the reason ordinary people, not just "early adopters" or technology professionals, will want to make the Internet part of their lives. They represent a notion, too, that Content is King, possessing value t hat the medium will keep bidding higher and higher prices for. From content will come the hits, the Lucys, the Star Treks, the Seinfelds, of this new medium.
This view of content, with its royal status, is part of the television bias through which most people understand the Internet; a not dissimilar bias, perhaps, to when movies were thought to be a form of theater, and television a form of radio. It's what I certainly have believed. The Internet is an expanded, heightened, energized form of media, an incredible new mechanism by which to send a coherent message to the world.
"Do you know how bad these ideas are?" whispers my new friend beside me. "Think about this for a second. Games by e-mail. Pathetic! Delusional!"
Candace Carpenter, now taking the podium and hugging Halsey Minor, is another of the Internet's first generation of programming whizzes (programming in the television, rather than the software, sense). A former executive at QVC, Time Warner, and ABC, her company, iVillage, is one of the best-funded content companies in the Internet business. She has been heralded as the first example of a seasoned media executive crossing over into the Internet space, and iVillage has in fact structured itself as an independent production company, creating shows for network broadcast. Its network is America Online (AOL), which, along with the Silicon Valley venture group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, has invested more than $12 million in the company. The first "show" produced by iVillage is called Parent Soup -- a place, an environment, a channel, for parents on the Internet.
Carpenter, a stylish, blond fifty-something living with her daughter in Manhattan on Park Avenu e, is far from the computer company start-up type. She's very New York, the Californians say. She professes little interest in technology but possesses, as anyone can see, remarkable sales talents and tenacity. She understood that if you wanted to talk to AOL, you had to go to Vienna, Virginia. You had to show up, present yourself, hang around, get people familiar with your face, then wander the halls. It was America's greatest dysfunctional company, after all. So you had to intervene, confront it.
There's something appealing, scattered, Annie Hall-like about Carpenten. She plays with her hair and speaks in a tumble of enthusiasms, of contrary impulses, all of them passionate. What the Internet is to her -- "This thing, this incredible thing, totally beyond comprehension, totally beyond what anyone would have dreamed up if someone was dreaming of this" -- is, well, she can only really relate it to her experience as a recovering alcoholic in AA, to how the whole 12-step dynamic works.
In fact, although iVillage had invested heavily in the creation of traditional magazine and television-like content for Parent Soup, 'envisioning the product as a cross between a special interest magazine and a targeted cable channel, that approach has now been abandoned. Creating original and traditional content was expensive, and it isn't what users want, anyway. Users are happier creating their own content. They don't want to hear the experts, they want to hear themselves. It is just this incredible cacophony of voices, of user-created content, Carpenter says breathlessly. What's more, the users will do all the work -- for free! This, she says, is a viable business model.
It pains me. I am motivated by the oppo site impulse -- away from the cacophony, looking for the symphony. While I obviously have no quarrel with people getting together to chew the fat in chat rooms across the Internet, it is not a process that I necessarily bring value to.
I am looking forward to Time, Inc., editor in chief Norm Pearlstine's remarks, because he is likely to represent a voice for journalism -- sentences, paragraphs, order, punctuation, point of view -- in this new medium.
"You should get Time to buy you," offers my new friend, as Pearlstine shakes hands with his new media counterparts. "They might as well. They're going to buy something. They obviously don't know how to do it themselves."
"Not impossible, I suppose. We know the people at Time Warner, of course. We were the original consultants on Pathfinder." (Pathfinder is the multi-million dollar Time Warner Internet site.)
"Something to be proud of," he laughs.
Pearlstine's manner at the podium, along with his dark suit and pallid complexion, suggests a higher level of mission and seriousness than that of the other presenters. He seems purposely to eschew the relaxed, casual dress and the bonhomie of the cyber world.
But instead of endorsing the principles of journalistic objectivity and smart analysis and emphasizing the importance of good writing, Pearlstine gives a speech that seems to be about defending and protecting Time. With its bureaus around the world and its journalistic standards, Time stands over here and the riffraff and anarchy of the Internet stands over there. In the end, what will people pay for? What do people always pay for? Consistency, quality, reliability. Sure it's nice to go to someone's house for dinner, but you wouldn't pay for i t; it isn't Le Cirque.
"An industry of metaphors," interjects my companion.
The real conflict, however, Pearlstine continues, is not between Time and the do-it-yourselfers of the Internet but between Time Warner and Microsoft.
"The truth can now be told," says my friend.
Microsoft clearly has the capital to compete as a media organization, but does it have the credibility, the integrity, the temperament to function at the forefront of today's events and popular culture? Pearlstine wants to know.
I am worried about this myself. Anybody who has ever visited the "campus" in Redmond ought to be worried, I am thinking.
On the other hand, a kind of counterintuitive logic says that Time Warner will not be trounced by Microsoft but that both Time Warner and Microsoft will be trounced by some as-yet-unidentified new force. The thinking is that the old, because it is already committed to a direction and a bias and an infrastructure and a set of tools, can never produce the new and that the new will invariably lay waste to the old.
One of the hottest new companies at the conference is Boston-based Firefly. Now its two twenty-something founders follow Pearlstine to the podium. Firefly has been applying various data-matching technologies to musical tastes. For example, a person, X, represented by a digital marker, might indicate an interest in the rock group Jane's Addiction and theoretical physics and could therefore be matched with Y, a person whose digital marker indicates similar preferencesú The goal is to establish enough markers that the system can inform you that you, although you might not know it, are an inevitable Jane's Addiction fan. Firefly, on the basis of this technology, has succee ded, in its last round of financing, in raising its value to something like $200 million -- without yet having recorded any revenues.
While virtually everyone at the conference is devising some strategy to include personalization in what they are doing, I am staying a skeptic.
I believe we are approaching our job in a more personalized way. We have writers and editors performing the old-fashioned task of describing what might be interesting to a reader. I believe the connections between people and their interests are going to have to be made the traditional way -- by reviewers, critics, commentators. Software will not be able to tell me if I will like a movie or a rock group or the person who liked the movie or the rock group that I liked.
On the other hand, I feel ill-tempered, crabbed, old. Am I putting an undue emphasis on words and literacy?
I go looking for Norm Pearlstine (in his fifties, he is about the oldest person in the crowd) after the Firefly presentation and catch him during the midafternoon break. I circle first, then double back, observing, moving onto the fringe of his conversation. Pouncing.
Pearlstine looks at me as I would look at a petitioner. Distractedly. Eyes roving. Moving further away from the vortex of my enthusiasm. It is incumbent on me to suck him in. Hold him. Make the connection. But this is hard to do. He seems glum, distracted, even depressed.
Pearlstine had left the editor's job at the Wall Street Journal with the notion of building a group of information age media companies based on technology. With investors at the ready, he set out in early 1994 to read business plans and interview technology's next wave of entrepreneurs. What he had in mind were large databases, corporate systems, business-to-business information models. But he kept getting business plans about the Internet; they surrounded him like flies. It was annoying. For one thing, Pearlstine had never been on the Internet. Nor had anyone he knew been on the Internet. For another, the way the Internet was being described -- a free system available to everybody -- didn't make any sense, certainly not to someone who was trying to sell information. It was a relief for Pearlstine when he went to Time Warner, back to real media.
Now, as much as he tried to minimize Time Warner's new media problem -- it wasn't even a rounding error on their balance sheet, but it was a public relations headache -- it kept returning, kept growing. It was Pearlstine's problem again.
Was it possible that the Internet, an information distribution system maybe as revolutionary as the printing press, could threaten Time's basic business (remember the way television leveled Life)? Conversely, was it possible that the Internet posed an opportunity that the world's largest media company, with the best-known information brand names, was ideally positioned to take advantage of? Was it possible that Norm Pearlstine was the man best positioned to lead the information revolution? Or was it likely that Time Warner's continual losses on its Internet activities would give Pearlstine a big black eye?
"Have the technologists ever run the medium?" I prompt Pearlstine. "If so, not for very long, fight? The movie business. What did those guys know about literally making movies? Radio. Television. I don't see Microsoft really going the distance here."
"Seriously," I press, "do you th ink Microsoft is really interested in speaking to America? I mean, who is the messenger here? We're the messengers. Not those guys, hey?"
"They're very bright people in Redmond."
"Oh, I don't know. Do you really think so?" I scoff. "They're engineers, marketing people. They're all from the middle of the country somewhere. They're not from the East Coast. That doesn't mean they're not bright, of course, but it probably means that they're not, well, media savvy."
Straining, I lose him. Pearlstine excuses himself with a minimum of politeness, backing away from me and the other entrepreneurs who want Time Warner's ear.
Copyright © 1998 by Michael Wolff
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Meet the Author
Michael Wolff writes a weekly column about media for New York magazine and is a founding columnist of the Internet business magazine The Industry Standard. He is the creator of the bestselling NetGuide and the thirty-title series of NetBooks. He is the author of White Kids and the coauthor of Where We Stand, which became a multipart PBS television series. He lives in New York City.
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The high-tension, business niche content of this book has a deceivingly airy, emotionally impassive, yet aesthetic affect on the reader. In it, the author firmly nails down his 'content savvi,' while ushering the reader into the wave of 21st century business. Although one must scale frequently rousing semantic acrobatics, it can be especially enjoyed by other writers, entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and business financiers. This is true as long as they are not averse to some personal bloodletting as they ride the roller coaster, razor-sharp edge of Michael Wolff's cynicistic humor. One is left expecting to plunge into full suicidal hemorrage at each new chapter, but in particular, during the chapter entitled, 'The Art Of The Deal.' To the reader, this passage is at first mildly irritating, then interesting, then horrifyingly intriguing, then finally, fully addicting. Yet, overall,the book is written less in challenging semantics, as much as in dynamic business concepts and ideas. Michael Wolff's humor, in the end becomes a pin prick compared to the dynamic of the 'brave new world' ideas he imparts, making it worth the jump into his crisp, cyberspace analysis.
Wolff has presented an interesting tale of the gold-rush years of the internet. Published in 1998, the book precedes but foreshadows the dotcom crash. It's a fun tale and a fun read but I was left with a feeling of contempt for the author. Wolff is a CEO in spite of himself, and he should have been relieved of his duties sooner than he was. His business blunders and missteps are faithfully recorded here. He does seem to be making an honest 'mea culpa' but is apparently unable to recognize his biggest mistakes. After accepting funding from some shady people he finds that they're !surprise! out to screw him. And, inexplicably, at the end of the book he refuses a bailout by two men who, judging from what they say, have a much better grasp of Internet business than Wolff can dream of. One man tells him he's ready to write a check for three million dollars, ready to bring in people who are actually good at running the business and offers him a role as 'the visionary.' Wolff turns them down. It's an interesting look at watching someone bitterly shoot himself in the foot. Read this book as a cautionary tale. He may have survived but he has egg all over his face.