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The Rise and Fall of

1 Conversation was planned to be a revolutionary high-fashion clothing website. European-inspired, it was based in the UK with offices in 18 countries. In the late 1990s, everyone agreed that the Internet was a good thing and in scenes reminiscent of the gold rush, people got familiar with everything technical and began to exploit this new medium. A naive optimism prevailed across the industry, fuelled by a new approach to working with a strong emphasis on being happy. 'Happiness equals exponential productivity. If we invest in it, imagine the returns!', people said. No one wanted to be left out and a feeling prevailed that if you didn't get on the bandwagon then, your business would fail. Millions were invested and were spent on a mixture of very expensive technology, free coffee, at-desk massages and office parties.

Hulla Boo Loo

Boo wasn't the only start-up to take this ethos to an extreme, but the stories that emerged about it certainly showed the very worst excesses. There was a guest list of thousands invited to the launch party, though the website hadn't yet made an appearance (it took seven goes to finally get it up). There were free mobiles and laptops for everyone who worked there, state-of-the-art Sun servers at £300,000 each. They flew in a top hair stylist to consult on the length of hair of the site's animated 'friend' Ms Boo. You'd think that with all the Champagne being drunk, the caviar being eaten and the first class flights being flown, there was never any time to do any work.

According to Boo co-founder Ernst Malmsten in his book, Boohoo: A Dot Com Story from Concept to Catastrophe, it wasn't quite as glamorous as the media made it out to be. However, it's a tough job to justify some of the actions that were taken by a fledgling company. A bit like Imelda Marcos trying to explain why she had so many shoes.

In setting the record straight, the pair's arrogance (or is it naiveté?) is highlighted. Apparently vodka and grapefruit juice was the official office drink, rather than Krug1. They did fly around the world, but not always on Concorde, only when it was on special offer. All those nights at celebrity-filled nightclubs was an exaggeration, too, though Ernst did twirl Brazilian supermodel Gisele round the dance floor of a Parisian nightclub. It's small consolation for the business going down though isn't it?

A particular favourite excess was the company hiring a team of ex-Gurkhas for security. Loyal to the end, though they hadn't been paid, they even prevented the liquidators from entering the office. Malmsten says that these weren't personal bodyguards, they were there to protect the very expensive servers they'd bought. Ah, well, he should have said.

In an interview with, fellow co-founder Katja Leander acquiesced that there was free fruit and coffee on tap at Boo's offices, she qualified it by saying 'Doesn't every office have free coffee and fruit?' To your average British office worker, where you feel lucky to get a plain digestive, it makes you wonder what next? 'Let them eat cake'?

The trouble with Malmsten and Leander is that it's really difficult to feel sorry for them. They lost millions, but there is no faint whiff of the breadline about them. Ernst wears Prada suits and lives in Notting Hill, Katja is a former Elite model. The film rights to their story were bought by Working Title Films, and Cameron Diaz and Ed Norton were thought to be the most likely stars to play them, but the rights were eventually returned, unfilmed. Malmsten and Leander have, however, got into the after-dinner speaking circuit - advising executives how not to run a website.

Malmsten and Leander went to the same kindergarten in Sweden, but met again in Paris. They got together as an item, launched a literary website, sold it for a handsome sum and organised a poetry festival in New York. The couple split up, but remained business partners. Boo was formed in 1998.

Booed Off

The site's usability was a lesson in how not to design a website. What Boo was trying to achieve assumed a certain level of technical savvy at a time when we all still relied on faxes and the post. The site looked clever, sleek and sophisticated. Ahead of its time, you might say: clothes rotated so you could see the front and back; a mannequin was dressed in the clothes a shopper was buying; a virtual 'friend', Miss Boo, helped you make decisions. But the site crashed most browsers. It didn't work at all on Apple Macs, the computers used by design and media personnel, exactly the sort of people Boo wanted to attract. The site relied on Flash, which at the time, wasn't as commonplace as it is now and meant that the site took ages to load.

It wasn't just that the site was frustrating for users. Looking back with common sense, Boo's target demographic (basically young and trendy women with a lot of spare cash) was never going to dump the high street for a computer screen. For time-rich twenty-somethings, shopping is the main daytime social experience of the weekend. Just take a peek into purses of these women and see the store-cards. See the cafés packed with shoppers surrounded by chi-chi bags that make the statement 'I am cool. I've been into Harvey Nicks. In fact, I go there all the time.' Marvel at the thrill of the chase, the sale item hunted and bagged, taken home, brought out, shown off, complimented on, talked about and worn that night.

The demise of Boo signaled the great Internet shakeout. Boo officially went bust in May 2000, 18 months after the company was started, having burned through £130 million of investors' money.

With hindsight, of course the spending freewheel was going to end in tears. But, if you look back to the Internet boom days, it's not so hard to see how this couple had everyone going. Either that or somebody pitched an incredible sales story. They convinced blue chip heavyweights Benetton, investment banks JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and French millionaire Bernard Arnault to back them. At its height, the company was valued at $450 million and Malmsten and Leander made the front cover of Fortune magazine. And according to one report, they didn't even have a business plan. You've got to admire their cheek, really.

Boo Hoo

Boo still exists. These days it's an American high street clothing portal with links to Sunglasses Hut and Freemans.

The under-the-bonnet technology was bought by Bright Station (now renamed Smartlogik) for $400,000.

The domain name was bought by in June 2000, along with the content, customer email lists and trademark. And at the end of October, 2000, it re-launched, not as a sassy new e-tailer, but as an web traffic director simply showing customers to online retailers. Boo's virtual front woman Ms Boo, makes an appearance, and that seems to be the only remnant of the phoenix that didn't rise from the flames.

Even though its founders did.

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1A very expensive type of Champagne.

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