Mastering A Genre – Book: The Accidental Billionaires

Yesterday afternoon I read Ben Mezrich’s latest book The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal.  I downloaded it on my Kindle yesterday after hanging out with Howard Morgan of First Round Capital.  We are both voracious readers and – after the question “what’s on your Kindle right now” – I realized I’d forgotten to grab it.  I gobbled it down while recovering from my run, hanging out with Amy, chilling out after an intense week, and getting ready for my partner Jason’s birthday party.

I met Ben once over sushi in Copley Square.  I had long admired him and have read all of his “non-fiction” books. It turns out that he’s friends with Niel Robertson, a good friend and entrepreneur who I’ve worked with on a number of companies, most recently Trada.  Niel arranged a get together around that time that the movie 21 was about to come out.  As I listened to Ben – and probed a little – I realized that this was a guy who had found his niche on the planet.  Specifically, writing “almost non-fiction books” that dramatize the experiences of select young people as they make their mark on the world in wild and amazing ways.

My own experiences cross over with three of Ben’s books.  As someone living deep in the tech startup world, I related to The Accidental Billionaires, knew some of the people mentioned, and was aware of most of the back story behind the tale Ben weaves.  While I was never part of any of the MIT Poker teams, several friends were, including one of Amy’s old boyfriends who also was a frat brother and a good friend of mine.  So – I adored Bringing Down the House and Busting Vegas: A True Story of Monumental Excess, Sex, Love, Violence, and Beating the Odds

As I read The Accidental Billionaires, I recognized both the inside baseball stories along with the wizardry of Mezrich creating believable scenes out of his magnificent writing gift.  While he’s recently been criticized for “making stuff up”, he’s very open about his approach to recreating narratives, even stating the following in the preface to the book:

… I re-created the scenes in the book based on the information I uncovered from documents and interviews, and my best judgment as to what version most closely fits the documentary record. … In some instances, details of settings and descriptions have been changed or imagines, …  I do employ the technique of recreated dialogue on the recollections of participants of the substance of conversations.”

Ben makes no apology about his style and approach.  Instead, he’s working at mastering this particular genre.  I think he’s gotten incredibly good at it.

  • For a number of years I've been working on a book on the history of the PLATO system and the first online community that grew up around it. One thing I have always regretted is the lack of recordings — no footage, be it audiotape, videotape, film, whatever. So I have little original material to go by except the scant written record, and a huge oral history I've gathered by doing hundreds of interviews.

    But in weaving the story together the last thing I would ever do is invent dialogue. I dunno, I find it a detestable crossing of a line I simply won't cross. Sure, there is a "genre" of invented "almost-non-fiction" with fake dialogue and imagined scenes. And sure, somebody's gotta be a "master" of such a genre. But thank god it it isn't me.

    You either have the story or you don't, in my opinion. If you don't, you keep digging. But what you never, ever, ever do is make the story up. Ever!

    Just a difference of styles, I suppose.

    Thanks for the reminder not to go buy and read "Accidental Billionaires".

    • Given your perspective, you are right – you would hate the book!  I’m glad I saved you a couple of hours of your life.

  • Merle Gornick

    I LOVED Accidental Billionaires! Great review! (High Fives Brad Feld)

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  • Hi.. I recently read Accidental Billionaires and it got me thinking. What is more valuable for a software company (like facebook). 1,000 paying users or 100,000 non-paying users? What are your thoughts? View my blog post here:

    • The answer is going to vary dramatically based on the actual ability of the service to extract money out of its users long term.  Your post is a good start on the analysis.  The neat think in the world of software is that the capex and infrastructure investment is MUCH LOWER than many other businesses, so the lifetime value of a customer is often attractive at even relatively low dollar amounts.

  • A very good article, I will always come in.

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