Dead man working

You can’t have been following the Internet story for the last three years without reading about Cole Sear. He exploded on to the scene with a revolutionary Internet media play in San Francisco, made his first million at the age of nine, and subsequently became a venture capitalist for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers at the ripe old age of 12.

Since then he’s applied his phenomenal intellect to the problems of early-stage company funding, and has also become the richest teenage businessman in the world.

Which is why the rumours of his sudden nervous breakdown are a powerful metaphor for the collapse of the ‘net stock bubble: it’s a killer story.

I’ve always been fascinated by Cole’s career, so when I learned that he was trying to get his head together at a private clinic near Harley Street in London, I jumped at the chance to pay him a visit.

The clinic is nothing if not clinical: the receptionist completely ignores me. I follow her down a long, plain white corridor until she comes to a room with a picture of a brightly coloured mouse on the door. She knocks and we go in.

The room is dark, despite the bright sunshine outside. There’s a cartoon on the TV in the corner. The nurse places a glass of tomato juice beside Cole’s bed, and I stand awkwardly by the door as she brushes past me without a word. Cole is lying on the bed with the covers over his head.

The room is a poignant mixture of hospital decor and business trophies: Cole’s three Webbies are arranged proudly on a small table at the foot of his bed. There’s the famous picture of Cole with his arm around Jeff Bezos, and the one of Cole with his arm around Jay Walker. In each one, Cole has the same baffled, little-boy-lost expression, and looks much younger than the precocious teenager who wowed David Letterman and the Nasdaq.

Slowly the covers move back and I see the same small boy. But he no longer looks like “the Macaulay Culkin of the Internet era,” as a Time cover had dubbed him. He looks very, very frightened. I speak slowly.

“Hello. My name’s Michael. I’m a journalist. I’m hear to talk to you. Is that OK, Cole?”

He nods, so I put my portable tape-recorder down on the table, pull up a chair beside the bed, and sit down. I try to keep it light.

“Now that tech stocks have really tanked, I’m interested in what your vision of the future looks like. What do you see ahead?”

His eyes glisten, and he looks down. Finally he looks up and says:

“I see dead people.”

“What kind of dead people?”

“I see dead business people. Walking around like regular people.”

I rub my face with my hand.

“What kind of dead business people?”

He snuffles. It’s like talking to a five-year-old. I’m shocked at how sad he is.

“I see people in chinos and jeans. They’re in buildings with lots of computers. They’re staring at screens. They’re on-line. It’s awful.”

“Why is it awful, Cole?”

“They’re working. They look like business people. But they’re not.”

“Why is that? Why not?”

“Because their businesses have died.”

“You mean -“

He scrunches up his eyes, and for the first time I see what could be a glimmer of tears.

“They’re not making any money. But they don’t realize it. They think they’re making money. But their businesses are dead. Please make them go away.”

“Well, my magazine is telling that story, Cole. We’re doing the best we can to sort out what’s going on.”

“Your magazine is part of what’s going on, Michael.”

He looks up at me with a strange, almost tender expression. I remember the way the nurse blanked me. I look down at the copy of the magazine on the table and my tape recorder. They’ve both vanished. I realise I’ve been writing exactly the same story for the last three years. He smiles for the first time, and waves goodbye.

Parsons, of The Industry Standard Europe, has a sixth sense about these things. Let him know if he’s right at