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The ups and downs of a Web entrepreneur

High Stakes, No Prisoners

By Charles Ferguson

(Times Books, $27.50)

Reviewed by Teresa McUsic

Achieving overnight success in the Internet business is not as easy as it looks.

At least that is the conclusion one draws from reading one of the first corporate memoirs penned by an entrepreneur made rich by the Web business he built.

In High Stakes, No Prisoners, author Charles Ferguson gives a detailed, entertaining and informative first-person account of his time leading the development of a software company called Vermeer Technologies.

It's a tale with a happy ending, of course. Software giant Microsoft agrees to buy Vermeer in January 1996 for $133-million in Microsoft stock, shares that are now worth more than $1-billion thanks to the rise in Microsoft's stock price since then.

The story of Vermeer and Ferguson illustrates that it can pay off big to be an early player in an exploding market. But it also portrays the pitfalls and anguish that an entrepreneur endures to hit the big payday.

While the Web has drawn increasing attention from entrepreneurs and journalists in recent years, Ferguson and his co-founder Randy Forgaard hit upon their idea for the Web before the world knew that the Web was cool. The concept behind Vermeer was to develop software tools that would simplify the process of publishing Web pages, allowing average corporate users to design professional-looking Web sites without necessarily having to know a lot about Internet computer languages.

By the time Microsoft bought Vermeer, the start-up company had sold fewer than 300 copies of its software program. Ferguson acknowledges sales and marketing mistakes in the early days of his company that could have doomed the start-up had it had to compete directly with Microsoft in the market.

But as part of Microsoft, the software program developed by Vermeer has become a staple of Web site developers worldwide. The program, now called Microsoft Front Page, has sold more than 1-million copies and is considered a key element of Microsoft's strategy for extending its presence into the Internet marketplace.

Ferguson's book is valuable because it provides an intimate look at what it takes for an entrepreneur to achieve that kind of success. The author walks through the stages of his start-up process _ from his fights with venture capitalists in raising early financing to a blow-by-blow account of his negotiations as the company weighed its options in selling itself to Microsoft or emerging rival Netscape.

In between, Ferguson recounts lessons learned _ from launching a new product to hiring a chief executive for his company _ that provide valuable insights for any executive facing similar challenges.

What remains to be seen is whether this book will foreshadow a new string of Silicon Valley celebrity tell-all books in which executives who have secured lifetime wealth use books as a platform for letting the world know what they think of former business associates.

Ferguson provides a pretty even-handed account of his time in the start-up trenches. He goes out of his way to second-guess many of his own decisions and nearly goes overboard in couching his criticism of some of the people he encountered during his time as a Web executive.

That said, the author does lay some pretty stinging criticism on his partner, venture capitalists and industry executives, such as Jim Barksdale, the former chief executive of Netscape, and John Sculley, the former chief executive of Apple.

And while Ferguson was critical of Nathan Myhrvold, the former chief technology officer of Microsoft, he described most Microsoft executives as smart, aggressive and Web-savvy.

Given that Ferguson and many of his former co-workers owe their wealth to the performance of Microsoft's stock, the personal descriptions of Microsoft executives and the personalities of those competing against Microsoft should be taken with a grain of salt.

Nevertheless, Ferguson's book provides an interesting inside look at the development of a Web company and what it takes for an Internet entrepreneur to make an "overnight" fortune.

_ Teresa McUsic reviews business books for the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram.