It wasn't by design.
A couple of years ago, Kaplan, who was an Internet consultant, launched F***edCompany.com, a community Web site that specialized in skewering the missteps of formerly puffed-up dot-coms. The site's popularity rapidly soared as things went from bad to worse in the technology business.
It wasn't just because of the site's cheeky attitude. The bursting of the Internet bubble guaranteed a growing audience, as readers flocked to F***edCompany to read dispatches from tipsters willing to air their own companies' dirty laundry.
The Web site's success has made Kaplan persona non grata with many tech executives. Critics--and there are many--dismiss him as an opportunist who's simply cashed in on the bitterness of the disgruntled. Some companies, like Kozmo.com, the ill-fated Internet home-delivery company, went so far as to filter out Kaplan's site to prevent employees from accessing it.
But there's no denying it: A star has been born. Crowds of followers regularly gather at restaurants and saloons Kaplan frequents. Last month, the ABC television show "20/20" interviewed him in his New York apartment.
Kaplan, who also runs a Web consulting company and develops software, recently met with CNET News.com to talk about the emergence of F***edCompany and his unlikely role as a spokesman for the ranks of beleaguered dot-com workers.
Q: Now that you've operated your own company, do you have more sympathy for the managers, CEOs and founders of these failed Internet companies?
A: Not at all. I'm less sympathetic. When I used to run PK Interactive, which is a consulting company, the business model was fairly straightforward. It was like being an auto mechanic. You pay us to build and fix Web sites. They're happy, we're happy, and that's that.
"I always encourage people to buy (my book) from Amazon because every book you buy from Amazon they lose like $1.50."
When I was running F***edCompany at the time, I would say, "Well, maybe it's not as easy as..." I was doubting myself a little. I would say, "Maybe it's harder to run these dot-com companies than I know. Maybe there's something I don't understand." Meanwhile, I'm making loads (of money) from F***edCompany. I'm not Bill Gates, but I'm doing OK. It makes me even less sympathetic toward those people.
There are so many dot-com companies that spent millions upon millions of dollars that tried to get a fraction of the traffic I'm getting and a fraction of the revenue that I'm getting. They have billboards in Times Square, they have 50 employees, they have a whole team of marketing and sales people. All this and they don't do anything. And that's pathetic and sad.
You've become a voice of authority--albeit a cynical voice--about Internet business. Have you learned anything from chronicling the failure of others? Do people ever ask you for business advice?
I usually make stuff up. It's like when people ask you for directions and you're just like, "Yeah, sure, I know where it is. It's down three blocks, past the swimming pool, make a left."
Honestly, I haven't learned as much as you would think because a lot of it dealt with common sense. That's the whole joke about the dot-com revolution. When I say a company is not going to make a lot of money trying to get people to download an application that shows them advertisements, you don't have to be a Harvard business major to see that's a stupid idea. The best piece of advice I give to people is to listen to their programmers. Yeah, you wouldn't be Microsoft without good managers, good designers, good marketing people--but in the end the programmers wrote the program. Everything else is there to support it. The companies that failed, that was their No.1 mistake.
Is your company profitable?
Absolutely. Let me put it this way: I have no overhead. I have one full-time employee. It's easy to be profitable if you're one guy who runs a Web site.
What mistakes have you made? If one of your employees sent a nasty e-mail about one of your companies, how would you rate yourself?
The porn thing might be one of the mistakes I made. I tried the porn site thing for three days, and it was going really well. It got a lot of positive reviews in the press, but then I started to read them in the press. I'm a porn fan like the next guy, but once you cross that line and you're actually involved in the business--I guess I just (chickened) out on that one.
You've written a new book about the Internet shakeout, called "F'D Companies." When is it due to be released?
Officially it hits the stands on April 9. But Amazon has started selling it already, and I believe that it's just starting to get out to the bookstores. But I always encourage people to buy it from Amazon because every book you buy from Amazon they lose like $1.50. (Laughing.)
What's the best thing that has happened to you since you started to receive media attention almost two years ago?
"The only people who are generally dismayed about being on F***edCompany are sometimes the CEOs and executives. I don't want them on my site anyway."
One of the coolest things is when I meet girls. Usually when it comes up, "What do you do for a living?" I'd say "programmer." Then they run in the other direction. But now I'm thinking I could say "author." I haven't tried it yet, but I'm thinking it might give me some game there. I'll let you know how it works out.
You were criticized by some who said you made light of a very serious situation. A lot of those doomed companies employed thousands who were put out of work.
Anybody who would say that hasn't actually read the Web site. The information I get--the 300 to 500 tips I get every day--come from those people, the people laid off. They beg and plead with me to list their news because they want to get at their employer and they want to shed light on something that was done to them or something unfair.
All the information I get is from people who were laid off. The only people who are generally dismayed about being on F***edCompany are sometimes the CEOs and executives. I don't want them on my site anyway. But it's important to note that my site is for the workers. If workers didn't read or like my Web site, there would be no information to post.
Have you ever been laid off?
Yeah. What happened was that I got wind that layoffs were happening at my company. My boss kind of tipped me that my name came across his desk. I'd worked for companies that had layoffs, but I was doing a good job or I was too wrapped up in a project so that it probably didn't make sense to lay me off. However, there was a point when I thought I was going to get laid off and it made the job less fun, so I quit.
Is that where your disdain for the Internet came from?
No, I mean, I really don't have disdain for the Internet. There were a couple of things. It was just ridiculous seeing the really stupid dot-com ideas. So many people were being screwed and lied to and ripped off and cheated. I put up the site, and so many people told me: "Hey, your site is like therapy. I got laid off. I didn't know what to do. I came to your site and I saw I wasn't alone, and it made me feel better." That kind of stuff made me feel really good.
Some people also criticized you for allowing disgruntled employees to attack a company's leadership without allowing the other side to explain their side. They also said that besides lowering morale at the company, it sometimes hurt the company's reputation at pivotal points, sometimes when they were trying to turn things around. What do you say to them?
Again, all the information that I get comes from people who work for those companies. There have been times when I have received tips saying: "Hey, dude, we just laid off half our company. But I'm a designer here. I make $40,000 a year here. I don't want the world to know that we just laid off half our people because then we'll lose a client, and if we lose that client, I might lose my job." So if somebody tells you, "Please, don't post it," I don't post it.
What events in your childhood foreshadowed your emergence as an Internet rebel?
I recently figured that out. The most obvious one is that I ran a big bulletin board when I was in high school in the late 1980s. It was for trading pirated games and software, mostly. That was interesting because I knew it was illegal. Everyone involved knew it was illegal. So you tried to really screen people and keep the general public out.
Meanwhile, along comes Napster, and you see all these people say that it's not illegal or this or that. Which is funny because when you get 10 million (people) into the game, you try to argue that you're not doing anything wrong.
I don't know. There is one thing that I've noticed that all successful people have in common: They don't give a f**k whatever anyone else says. They just do it. I've always tried to live my life like that.