Some of the Midwest's finest Internet survivors tried their hand at a full-on dot-com revival yesterday during a conference here.
The Dot-Com Boomerang event, organized by ePrairie.com, gave close to fifteen companies five minutes each to explain how they made it through the darkest part of the cave and out into the light. While the tales proved some things have changed, especially with respect to start-ups' non-interest in venture capital, they mostly showed that the dot-com message is the same as ever. The Internet is a religion.
"It is inconceivable that my children will do anything but buy their goods and services on the Internet," said David Litman, co-founder of Hotels.com, in a keynote at the event. "It's inconceivable."
This comment summed up the mood of the dot-com survivors. They have an undying belief that as the Internet spreads into every home it will change the world in radical ways. Hotels.com says that 12 percent of hotels are booked online today, but by 2005, this will rise to 22 percent. SBI.RazorFish used the Internet to create a "completely integrated marketing and product program to memorialize" the launch of Petco Park in San Diego. And WrestlingGear.com is using the Internet to corner the market on Adidas wrestling shoes. Yes, yes, yes!
Try as they might to bridle their enthusiasm, these self-proclaimed entrepreneurs could not refrain from slipping back into the dot-com sludge those in Silicon Valley know all too well. Sure, this is cow country, and it's in need a technology celebration every now and then, but that doesn't make talking about "teamwork," "focus" and "positive mistakes" okay. Your business survived because you actually sold something not because you harnessed the mystical side of the Internet ethos.
Litman and Jared Polis, founder of Proflowers.com, were two of the more coherent speakers at the conference - probably because they gave hour-long keynotes as opposed to the five minute dot-com briefs. Both executives made hundreds of millions of dollars using the Internet as a tool, and this seemed to give them a reserved calm about the technology . . . at times.
For example, the executives urged attendees to avoid venture capitalists when possible - unheard of advice in the boom days. The venture vultures will take an unfair share of your company and make life difficult, Litman and Polis said.
In addition, the dot-com survivors advised entrepreneurs to be aggressive. The fear surrounding dot-com companies has started to fade, and there is money to be made. Now.
Both men also urged fledgling businesses to focus on cash flow, making sure a business can work in the black from day one, if possible. This too helps keep the venture bullies away. Be frugal, be smart and be innovative were the other messages.
"I do believe that a good business idea works regardless of a good business cycle," Polis said. "If you find a way to deliver a product or service in a better way or at a better value than it has been delivered before, then you will succeed in any business climate."
Think of the pet rock!
But, from where we sat, all of the practical advice delivered by the Dot-Com Boomerang participants was coated in a lottery-like goo.
"Buy Sam's Club water and used furniture," Litman told the audience.
Yeah, that sounds easy enough. Anyone can be a millionaire. Sam's Club water. Duh.
"Your children will use the Internet," he said.
Duh again. Untold riches are waiting for me, if I can just figure out how to deliver action figures and doll houses over the Internet. Stores are so old hat. Look to the Web, young man. Duh, duh, duh.
In the end, a 2004 dot-com conference is much like a 2000 dot-com conference. A few executives speak of the promised land and the greedy muscles in your body twitch. The only major difference in the conference was not the content but the event itself. No free cocktails. No lavish conference room trappings.
Nope, at this event, hotel staff were vacuuming the floor two minutes before the speeches started. Tables were void of sugared water or even water for that matter. In all honesty, the tables were a bit thin on participants with less than 200 people attending the event.
The revival may have started, but it's still in desperate need of a strong voice and a clue. ®
For a list of all the survivors, look here. Also, be sure to check out the rest of ePrairie.com, especially if you live in the Midwest. Good stuff.