It's required that every five years I complete the Technology Columnist's Self-Assessment Performance Review. And since I began writing @Large in February 2000, when the Nasdaq Composite was higher than Whitney Houston and newly minted community college grads had their pick of six-figure jobs, my time has come.
Smart people know that when doing a self-assessment, the only shortcomings you bring up are things your boss would praise you for: "My biggest weakness is that I pester our customers with too many phone calls to make sure that they're satisfied and solve any problems."
I am not a smart person.My main objective with this column has been to write about the most interesting people, companies, and ideas in New England's innovation economy -- before they're covered elsewhere. (I began by focusing primarily on high tech, but in 2003, broadened my scope to cover biotech and medical devices.) Sometimes, I've missed that mark.
On occasion, I've been under-informed. I've muffed calls, and worse, steered clear of making a prediction about what will happen next, hiding behind the lame old columnists' dodge: "Only time will tell what happens next."
The only reason, so far as I can tell, that I have not yet been fired is that when Globe telemarketers call my home, I always order an additional subscription, telling them what a big fan I am of that witty and perceptive Scott Kirsner on Mondays. My porch has twice been reinforced to bear the weight of 287 newspapers. On Sundays, I rent a fork-lift.
Many people learn from the advice of their colleagues. Not me. At lunch several years ago, Steve Bailey (regularly lauded as Boston's best columnist) offered me some constructive criticism about the importance of cutting quickly to the point of a column. Yet here we are, 300 words in, and I am still clearing my throat -- the columnist's cardinal sin.
So here is the blooper reel: a sampling of the more notable errors of the last five years, with only enough pats on the back to prevent me from getting too depressed to go on.
Very few companies touted in this column over the last five years as IPO prospects have gone public, from eRoom to eDocs. Despite a hopeful 2003 column entitled "Changed landscape brings the return of the IPO," most companies mentioned in that column, including Connected Corp. and Telica, got bought instead.
A couple of my IPO picks from that column did make it out: Phase Forward and Idenix Pharmaceuticals. Another, Unica Corp., is currently in registration, but a source tells me that the company has delayed its Nasdaq debut until the second quarter.
I told you in early April of last year that Ted Philip, the chief financial officer of Lycos during its heyday, was planning to buy The Yankee Group, a venerable Boston-based technology research firm. That deal was announced a month later. Where I was wrong: I predicted that Yankee Group chief executive Brian Adamik would be replaced. He's still there, and Philip is chief executive of the holding company that now owns Yankee.
In May 2002, I was right that EMC's chief technology officer was on the verge of retiring. But I quoted an analyst who'd written that EMC probably wouldn't remain the king of data storage, and that guy was wrong: EMC has since gotten its groove back, improving its market share in hardware and software. And so far, I've been wrong about EMC being an acquisition target -- the company seems likely to stay independent, for the time being.
In 2002, I was right about former Sun Microsystems president Ed Zander spending a bit more time in Boston after he bought a $1.8 million condo at the Ritz-Carlton Towers, even though a Sun spokesman told me he wouldn't be spending "any more or less time in Boston." Shortly after that, Zander joined the board of a Framingham server company called Netezza, left his post at Sun, and later became chief executive of Illinois-based Motorola, which has several outposts in Massachusetts.
And speaking of Motorola: At the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2003, I was bearish about the prospects for Ucentric Systems of Maynard, which was then trying to deliver digitally recorded programming to multiple rooms in the home. (Think TiVo for every TV, but without requiring a dedicated TiVo box.) Then, in a column last December, I listed Ucentric as the least important local company working on TV technology. Just one month later, Ucentric was acquired by Motorola, though the purchase price wasn't disclosed, and Ucentric had Hoovered more than $30 million in venture capital. Was the acquisition price greater than $30 million? "It was a great outcome," says Mike Hirshland of Polaris Venture Partners, one of Ucentric's investors.
After bugging entrepreneur J.J. Allaire for more than a year to tell me about his new company, he agreed to give me first dibs on writing about it last March. I promptly got the company's name wrong, spelling it Onpholio. (It's actually Onfolio.) That forced Allaire to register the Web domain for my misspelling, www.onpholio.com. The Cambridge company sells software that helps researchers organize and share material they find on the Web.
In December 2002, I predicted that ScanSoft of Peabody, a document-scanning and speech-recognition software company, was shifting into acquisition mode, and that the company would buy either Boston-based SpeechWorks or Nuance Communications in California. In April of the following year, ScanSoft snapped up SpeechWorks for $132 million. Just last November, ScanSoft picked up another three companies for $60 million in total, including Phonetic Systems of Burlington.
ScanSoft still hasn't changed its name, though, to reflect the fact that the company isn't just about scanning anymore, as I once suggested it might do. Spokesman Richard Mack says it's still a possibility.
Columnists sometimes write open letters to public figures, offering unsolicited advice. I try to avoid that as a rule, but in 2000 I wrote an "open e-mail" to David Wetherell, then chief executive of CMGI, a onetime Internet highflier based in Andover. I advised Wetherell to wriggle out of the dumb naming deal he'd done to plaster CMGI's name on the Patriots' new stadium in Foxborough. By 2002, the company had done just that.
(The rights went to Gillette, which could shortly be owned by Procter & Gamble. Will we one day go to games at the Pampers Bowl?)
More recently, I mangled Bruce Johnston's name and title last week. Johnston is a managing director at the private equity firm TA Associates in Boston. (In my defense, in five years of writing @Large, I've quoted Johnston at least twice before, spelling his name correctly. And last week's column was filed from a Starbucks in San Francisco. I blame the error on their watery vanilla latte.)
I was also wrong last week when I asserted that trading revenues were down at Adams Harkness, the Boston investment bank. Commission revenues from trades were up 12 percent in 2004, says spokeswoman Jessica Livingston. The issue is more complex, though: Costs to generate those revenues have been rising, as margins on each trade have been shrinking. And to respond to soft patches in other parts of the business -- like investment banking -- Adams Harkness has trimmed its staff several times, most recently in November.
Finally, I'm consistently bullish about the start-ups I cover in @Large -- even those that face tough odds against entrenched competitors. For that, I'm not apologetic. Entrepreneurs and inventors need all the cheerleading they can get, and it's great fun to be able to tell you what they're working on before you've read it elsewhere.
Aside from that, I will endeavor to improve my performance here in the Business section over the coming year.
And if you have feedback for me at the five-year mark, I'd love to hear it.
My e-mail address is below, and if you'd like, you can send a copy to my editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Scott Kirsner is a contributing editor at Fast Company. He can be reached at email@example.com.