How I lost a Billion-Dollar in 1999 ?!!

I am not kidding. This is a true story. I am also not boasting. It was a mistake. There is nothing to be proud of. The reason I am sharing this story is so that you can learn from the mistakes I made. I didn’t see the potential; Didn’t have a mentor; Didn’t think big enough; And most importantly, I did not have any focus.

Why do all these things matter? You’ll learn as I share my story of how I lost a billion-dollar in 1999 by not building Facebook even though I started on the same idea, which, a few years later turned Mark Zuckerberg into one of the youngest Billionaires!

The year was 1999. I was doing my Bachelor’s in Computer Science from Holkar Science college in Indore. This was our final (3rd) year in the school/college. As this was the last year of college, we knew that most of the classmates will be on their way to taking a job, doing further studies, or moving back to their hometowns. A craze going on at that time was to get a “slambook” filled by your classmates. Slambook was a sort of diary, where your friends will write about themselves, their favorite things, their thoughts about you and wishes for your future. Everyone in my class has a slambook that they would hand over to others to fill up and return.

I wanted my slambook to be unique. I didn’t want to spend 40-50 rs. on a slambook that would look just like one of the others. So, I came up with an idea.

This was 1999/2000. There was no Facebook; No one had heard of Google, and only a few knew about the internet – the only one computer in our college that had internet was locked in a room and connected to VSNL on a dial-up line to get results in a browser called Netscape Navigator.

So, I hadn’t even thought of building something for the internet. That was going to happen a few years later as part of my Master’s project with Oracle, ASP.net, and C# but right now, let’s go back to MS-DOS and C++!

I bought a 3.5″, 1.44MB floppy disk. Here is a picture of those if you forgot or aren’t old enough to know what they are. It is a little storage device that could store up to 1.44MB (not a typo) of data and you use a disk reader to access this data.

A 1.44MB 3.5″ inch floppy disk to store data on a magnetic disk

I wrote a program in C++ that would ask the user about themselves, their hobbies, their favorites things. Then it will ask them to share their thoughts about me and anything else they want to say. The program used data structure to store this information in an object and then write it to a file where it was indexed by the first and last name of the person entering the data. Using the text based menu, user could select to “view” other entries, just like you can go thru the slam book to see what others have written. Once the user confirms there entries, it will take them to the main menu to exit the program and they would return the floppy disk back to me! Then, I pass on this 3.5″ “slambook” to others.

This, was my version of Facebook. A digital slambook, where you can virtually connect with your friends, see what they have written on your “wall”, look at their “likes” and share with other friends as well.

Now, if I had enough vision, this small fun project of mine could be turned into Facebook! It was too early as I did not know the possibilities. I did not have any mentor, except a few seniors who helped but with their limited knowledge. The best mentorship I had got was to build a network-based chat application or a “school management system” and sell it for profit – which we indeed did. If only I had little more clarity, a belief in making this a bigger, better application – I could’ve invented “slambook” or “Facebook” in 1999. So, this is how i did not see the opportunity and lost my 1st Billion Dollar idea in a 1.44 MB, 3.5″ disk that’s lying somewhere with my old books and pictures in a box somewhere in the attic.

Don’t short sell your ideas! If you do something unique, find out how you can leverage and do MORE with it. Find mentors who may be able to drive you in the right direction. All I have now are excuses why it did not happen – but If I was a little more aggressive in learning and finding what I could do with that idea, maybe the world would be different.

My Lessons learned from this:

  1. Most of the time, you don’t know what you don’t know. Accept it, and be ready to ask, learn and take action appropriately.
  2. Find a Mentor. It will help in the long run to have someone helping.
  3. Keep an open mind to your ideas, other people’s ideas, and think BIG.
  4. Look for an opportunity to be an “early adopter” “the first comer” rather than being a “follower”. It’s risky, but it’s rewarding!

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