Field Notes

A celebrated science-fiction author creates a template for the 'perfect' business plan

If you need any further proof that entrepreneurship has entered the mainstream of popular culture, take a look at Cryptonomicon (Avon Books), the newest work from author Neal Stephenson. Stephenson--labeled "the Quentin Tarantino of post-cyberpunk science fiction" by The Village Voice--is best known for his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, a compelling vision of our technological future that became required reading in the boardrooms of Silicon Valley. A possibly apocryphal story has the CEO of one high-tech start-up tossing the book on the table in a staff meeting and declaring, " This is our business plan."

Imagine what the same CEO would do with Cryptonomicon, which despite its complex multigenerational story line (and intimidating 918-page length) reached #12 on the New York Times best-seller list. It tells two stories that are generations apart. One is the tale of Silicon Valley techies on the thrill ride of an entrepreneurial start-up of their own. The other is about the Allied cryptographers--the high-tech geeks of their day--who broke the Axis military codes in World War II. In the course of the present-day story, Stephenson makes his most telling observation: in today's increasingly entrepreneurial culture, building a business is the way those who seek adventure pursue their dreams. "The people who, 100 years ago, would have been carrying their crates over the Chilkoot Pass to join the Klondike Gold Rush now start companies," Stephenson tells Inc. "Starting your own company has become a standard rite of passage."

That may be true in the cash-rich culture of high tech, but it doesn't explain why a hipster novelist like Stephenson would include his take on the language and conventions of the modern business plan--a wickedly insightful take--in a major work. Is the business plan becoming so much a part of our cultural vernacular that it's now grist for the satirist's mill? "It is part of our vernacular," Stephenson says. "That would have been unthinkable years ago. Think of the movie The Graduate. The guy who said 'plastics' symbolized the sheer awfulness and boredom of business. That whole attitude has completely turned around. Today starting a company is the way you express yourself and rebel and change things."

At one point some years ago, Stephenson himself caught the entrepreneurship bug and was involved in a start-up effort or two. "For a while I considered trying to get something going with interactive media," he says. "Pretty early on I learned that you have to have a business plan, so I started getting into that process a little bit."

The start-up didn't fly, but no effort is wasted when you are a fiction writer. "I thought I was writing a business plan, but as it turned out, I was really doing research for that part of the book," Stephenson says. He apparently learned well enough to teach others, becoming one of only six visiting fellows at Ernst & Young's Center for Business Innovation, in Cambridge, Mass. He remains struck by how important it is to be able to write a good business plan, how the definite, sometimes glib, jargon (for example, every aspect of the business must "increase shareholder value") meshes with the serious purpose underlying every effective plan.

Published on: Oct 1, 1999