Pacific Connection(英語)

The Dot-Com Death Watch:Prediciting E-Commerace Failures Has Become a Participatory Sport

While its name may be unprintable in most American publications, the website (a spoof on "Fast Company"---both an expression and the name of an Internet business magazine) is a pretty good indicator of "" companies' diminishing stature these days. The website was created by Phil Kaplan, a 24-year-old New York consultant, as a not-so-serious endeavor. Nevertheless, has become one of the best vantage points from which to watch the underbelly of Internet commerce---and has proven good medicine for an industry that has suffered from galloping optimism.

At the core of the site is a game---a variation on celebrity "deadpool" in which players predict the demise of well known public figures. Morbid it may be, but deadpool reflects a combination of envy and come-uppance that is a part of human nature: "You may have been rich and famous, but I outlived you!" The same sort of common man triumph underlies FuckedCompany's site, where players predict the "death" or near death of e-commerce companies.

The site's rules are straightforward. Contestents, who play for free, select up to five companies each week. Each company exists in some stage of health, from seemingly robust to ailing. A candidate company might appear to be roaring along, but in fact be on the verge of acquisition. Or it may have declared bankruptcy, or, like, exist on the Web as a shell of its former self---its employees gone, its operation conducted by another company.

Kaplan's game thrives on signs of impending doom---which the website bluntly calls "fucks." The site awards looks for these signs and awards each a point value of 1-100 depending on its severitity: a minor layoff scores less than an a mass firing, a departing president outscores a departing chief financial officer, a rumored bankruptsy scores less than the real thing. The full 100 point award is reserved for a complete bust, in which a dot com head the way of the Titanic.

In addition to this severity rating, the game also rewards players who identify failures everyone else overlooked. For example, if a company that goes bust is picked by 10 percent of all players, each player gets 100 points for the severity---plus another 90 for being among the 10 percent to make the call. Companies that reach a severity factor of 100 are retired to a hall of fame.

The game also awards a 25 point bonus for picking a heretofore unblemished company that eventually expires. The website lists the top 100 players by screen name, as well as a list of recent rumors. At this writing, for example, rumored management layoffs at and were worth (worth 178 and 180 points respectively). AppOnline and were filing for bankruptsy (200 points), while had withdrawn its public offering (134 points).

The site also includes a discussion board that is not for the sensitive. Topics have included: "I hate it when people bring kids to work," "Which dot.coms have the best looking guys," "Does anyone here daytrade while at work?" and "Which has the most fuckable young broads." Many of these subjects could get you fired in America if you actually raised them over lunch.

While may be the most in-your-face place for watching bad news in the e-commerce sphere, it is not alone.

[] With the motto "Kick 'em while they're down," this site's home page lists prominent dot-com failures, with invitations from visitors to post a comment or rumor. Last July, the site's Dead List listed 20 companies that had shut their doors, from to violet. On the bighter side, the site lists recent venture capital fundings---infusions that can give new life to faltering companies and represent a vote of confidence by the financial community.

For dot-com workers who jumped ship from larger companies, DotcomFailures features a "Lackey Calculator" that factors in hours per week, salary, the pay cut taken to join and the number of stock options. According to the calculator, a worker who puts in 65 hours a week, makes $80,000 a year, took a 25 percent cut, and has 5000 shares is losing $20,000 a year and locate find a job recruiter.

[Upside magazine's] includes a burial ground section with virtual tombstones that include a bried description of the diseased copany, dates of "birth" and "death," and the burn rate (the amount of investor capital consumed), if known. Entries also sometimes include either a mention of depature, often from the CEO ("Had I been in the food business before, I probably never would have done this.") or a sugary statement from better times, such as this from the CEO of digital entertainment network: "The online world has developed 10 times the speed of broadcast media. In one year, we'll be 10 years old, the equivilant of taking us from the dawn of television to its golden age."

[Failure Magazine] and its Website takes a broader, more thoughtful approach to the subject. The site recently included an interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Hardly a failure himself, Woz commented on some of the industry's more notable failures---and early Apple competitors---including Commodore, Atari, and Tandy. The site's departments include art & entertainment, business, sports, failure through the ages, and, of course, science and technology.

Why a death watch?

Despite all the attention paid to dot-com failures, nobody should be surprised that some e-commerce sites are dying. The failure rate among all new businesses is high, and always will be. Many entrepreneurs play the game, comparatively few succeed. Mary Modahl, vice president of research at Forrester Research, has predicted that more than half the dot-coms now in business will eventually sink. Indeed, the high-risk, high-reward nature of high-tech entrepreuneurship opened the door for a new breed of financial investers---venture capitalists---who were more willing to take risks than traditional bankers, the usual source for business loans.

The e-business consulting firm Deloitte & Touche has a similar take. The firm lickened today's business climate for dot.coms with the autombile industry in its early years, with 500 companies did business in the U.S. and Europe. "And what about the dozens of personal computer manufacturers that dotted the landscape in the 1970s, or the 43 manufacturers of disk drives that started out with over $400 million of investment capital? Where have they all gone? However impressive their potential and the initial promise of their rewards, they could not survive the fierce competition. Too many hungry dogs were snapping at their heels." The report noted that when a part of the world grows overpopulated and the means of subsistence are limited, "some denizens of the jungle must fall." (The report goes on to note that the failure of some dot-coms opens opportunity for other companies to more in.)

So if dot-coms failure is expected, why are so many people fixated and fascinated by their demise? In part, the answer is plunging stock performance in a market that seemed to defy gravity. Since the beginning of the year, some dot-com stocks have leveled off, others have declined precipitousely, losing even half their value. Stocks will go up and stocks will go down, but in the case of e-commerce, this percipitous slide has been the first injection of reality in a loopy market, one that has confounded economists and value investors looking for old-fashion profits. Conventional wisdom has it that stock performance correlates with earings---the more money a company makes, the higher its stock price should climb.

But in the dot com space, investors have assumed that marketshare comes first and profits will follow. That explains why, arguably the best known Web commerce site, can go quarter after quarter without making money, while at least some investors remain enthusiastic. The Amazon story is almost exclusively about garnering market share in a broad number of categories. The company started out as a bookseller, then expanded into CDs, and now sells everything from circular saws and cordless drills, gas grills and hammocks. If it can make these businesses work, applying its bookselling model of customer reviews and reliable service---the company will have transformed itself into an electronic mall, while redefining how people shop, at least that's the hope. Countless other companies are, in their own way, reaching for the same goal.

The stampede of investors eager to put money into the e-commerce sector has had a big impact especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and more broadly on the West Coast, where many "new economy" companies are clustered. Investment dollars, more than profits, have created a stereotype: the dot-com multimillionaire entrepreneur who, despite not reaching the age of 35, can pay exhorbitant amounts of real estate at a rate not seen in this country since the wave of Japanese investments in the 1980s. People shopping for houses tell stories of modest two-bedroom homes in the flatlands of Palo Alto (home of Stanford University) selling for more than a million dollars, a sum that in other parts of the country would buy you an estate.

According to a California form that tracks estate, te number of Bay Area homes that sold for $1 million or more during the second quarter rose by about 71 percent. In San Francisco, a million dollars will buy you a three-bedroom, three-bathroom home in with about 2,000 square feet of floorspace. By American standards, that's a middle-class house selling so far out of the reach of ordinary Americans that most kids growing up in San Franciscan kids will themselves have to look elsewhere to live. Home prices in San Francisco have grown so high that most residents gainfully employed as accountants or even lawyers may figure they can only afford to rent. A real estate agent I know sent one couple, a doctor and a lawyer, to a suburban tract housing neighborhood formerly occupied by working dads and stay-at-home moms. And then consider the wealthy community of Ross, which is now considering a building limitation of 10,000 feet per home.

And what of the entreprenuers' employees? Those people comprise the second economic phenomenon of dot-coms. Many of them have left secure jobs with larger technology companies to work for long hours at comparatively low wages in trade for stock options that would, if all goes well, make them millionaires overnight. This phenomenon has a name, "web slaves." It had a cheerful connotation while stock prices kept rising. Now, with the fall, the mood has soured and grown more cynical---although many would say that the economic climate has simply become more realistic, at least by those still holding onto the dream.

The tougher climate for dot-coms has impaired their ability to hire. "Gone are the days when Internet retailers could dangle 10,000 stock options, utter a few words about revolutionizing the process of buying gravel, say, and then get a prospective employee to sign on for a galley slave's salary and 16-hour days in close quarters with 24-year-olds and their Labradors," wrote Bob Tedeschi in the New York Times, referring to the practice among some technology companies to allow dogs at work. He says that with stock options sometimes falling, rather than rising to the stratosphere, applicicants are becoming more traditional in their job requirements. They want a good salary---that is, money up front---and a sense that the company will be around for a while. Skilled management and technical personnel always thought twice before jumping from an established company to a chancy startup. Now, they may not jump at all.

Tedeschi predicts that the short term, at least, "traditional companies with Internet divisions could have a substantial advantage in the recruiting wars, thereby putting additional pressure on their dot-com competitors." These hybrid companies, sometimes called "click & morter," may be the new model for Internet expansion. Presumably, they've already proved their worth in the traditional retail sector. The Internet represents an expansion of their business, rather than the whole of it.

And so, an acidic website like becomes an underground success by tapping into the sense of disillusionment among those who believed in the pure play dot-com dream, as well as the I-told-you-so glee of those who long predicted that the dot-com economy would eventually come crashing to earth. And for some of the more sober observers within and outside the technology industry, the dot com slide is actually a healthy phenomenon because it recorrelates financial performance with financial reward. Or, as one professional told me, "It's good to see that the adults are back in charge."

With dot-coms failing, some observers now question whether the business model has been oversold. Teenagers, for example, who collectively spend millions of dollars each year, often lack the credit card needed to shop online. Besides, in America, many kids like hanging out in shopping malls, and shopping mall designers are finally awakening to that fact.

As the Wall Street Journal recently noted, a Macy's department store here recently revamped its junior department. "Now pipes and cables hang from an exposed ceiling and aisles zigzag diagonally across the space. Music emanating from a deejay booth blares at twice the level of other departments. (Speakers lodged in the ceiling are aimed toward the center of the juniors area, to avoid jarring older patrons.) And sales clerks with red- or blue-streaked hair and multiple body piercings don tight black leather pants, in sharp contrast to the more conservative-looking clerks in the rest of the store." The result: sales have jumped 19 percent.

As for the rest of us, e-commerce is undeniably convenient. But it's also impersonal and requires that we trust merchants we never heard of to take our money and deliver the. Moreover, you can't touch the merchandice and returns are more difficult to make. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman once asked his readers to imagine a world that was entirely based on e-commerce. Then, one day, somebody invents a retail store where you can go in person and see what you are actually buying. Imagine that! Viewed from that context, he suggests, bold economy brick-and-mortar retailing would seem like a revolution that could change the way that people purchase goods---the point being that brick-and-mortar companies are not likely to be fully subsumed by the Internet sites. In hindsight, if e-commerce's impact is minor rather than earthshaking, then the e-commerce investors 1990s will be seen as a bunch of optimistic lunatics who soon got their comeuppance.

Grow or Die: Thinks Big

No stock is considered a better bellweather of dot-com performance than, which turned five-year-old last July. Over the last year, Amazon investors have endured an unenviable rise and fall. Last September, for example, the stock was trading around 60. Ir rose to 110 in December and, at this writing, is trading at around 35.

Whether is a long-term success or a failure built on a house of cards is a matter of dispute. Some analysts think that what the company has accomplished in so short a time frame is a substantial feat. Coming out of nowhere with a name that evokes a South American river, Amazon has become the web's largest and best known retailer. . Other critics say that with the company $2 billion in debt, the day of reckoning is coming. Last July, shares in Amazon fell to $33.88, their lowest since December 1998, after a critical report by Ravi Suria, an analyst at Lehman Brothers. He said that a combination of negative cash, poor working capital management, and high debt load is putting Amazon under "extremely high risk." Speaking for his research team, Suria predicted that Amazon "will run out of cash within the next four quarters, unless it manages to pull another financing rabbit out of its rather magical hat." Other analysts disagree. Tim Albright of Salomon Smith Barney looked at the same numbers and concluded that Amazon could even withstand a drop in sales and higher costs without going belly up next year. All sides agree that will either be much larger than it is today, or will die. That means grabbing marketshare not only from conventional retailors, but fellow dot-coms.

One apparent victim of Amazon's success is, which combined video tape rental stores with online sites. Two years after its founding, optimism had turned to disaster for the parent company, Hollywood Entertainment. CNET's Stefanie Olsen wrote that the parent company, Hollywood Entertainment had hoped "would be a financial version of 'It's A Wonderful Life' [the James Stewart movie]." Instead, the company became "'The Money Pit' as the E-commerce arm racked up millions of dollars in losses with no end in sight." still exists but the entire E-commerce staff was laid off last June and its online operations are now conducted by another website,

Amazon seems to be suceeding at its core businesses: its book, CD and DVD divisions will be profitable this year. The bigger question is whether consumers will order other merchandise from Amazon or migrate to a more specialized company. Amazon's challenge is to persuade its customers that it is not just a book dealer, but the consummate electronic retailor.

Personally, I hope Amazon succeeds. In researching this story, I noticed that Amazon carried Pocket PC (Windows CE) palmtops. The selection was wide, the website organization informative and and easy to navigate. Focusing in on a Compaq monochrome model, I read some thougtful customer reviews, and one from Amazon itself. In fact, all the virtues that make Amazon a great place to shop for books seemed to be present here. My credit card was already online. Amazon already knew my address. I knew from experience I could count on fast, reliable delivery. (The package arrived in three days.) I clicked the "buy it" button, and Amazon took one more micron-sized step toward profitability.

Customer List Fire Sale

When a dot-com dies, one of its few remaining assets may be its customer list. That fact is behind a controversial move by some bankrupt compaines to sell their lists to other websites as a way of paying for their debts. The problem is that in many cases, customers assumed that their personal information would not venture beyond the website. If you do business with clothier, you wouldn't expect your name to be passed to after expires. was a member of TRUSTe, an organization that promotes Web privacy. Websites that include the TRUSTe "Trustmark" are suppose to adhere to established privacy principles and agree to comply with the organization's oversight and consumer resolution process. Not surprisingly, the organization is concerned because its privacy policy states that no information is shared with a third party without the express consent of the user.

TRUSTe has called the planned selling of customer names by bankrupt dot-coms "ethically wrong." In the case of, the organization said it would "do everything within the law to protect consumers from this potential invasion of privacy."