When Worlds Collide

Several months back, I was approached by the creators of a website that had been started by people with a technology background. They wanted to know if I'd write an article for them. It sounded interesting, and I tentatively agreed. "Great," they said. "We'll mail you a contract." And sure enough they did.

Along with the contract came a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) that they also wanted me to sign. I found this odd. For one thing, I wasn't going to be privy to any confidential information about the company. For another, I didn't want to be precluded from telling others about the site if I ended up writing for it. Also, I found some language in the contract to be overly restrictive, and I asked that it be stricken.

Typically, in the world of print magazines, freelance writers and their editors can make benign changes to such documents and initial them. But when I spoke with the assigning editor, she insisted that signing the NDA was a must. Furthermore, at this online magazine (which, by the way, stipulated that I refer to it only as either a "premier online resource" or "leading online resource" and not as an "online magazine"), any such changes would need to be agreed to by the lawyers. More than a month (and the original deadline) passed before the editor finally called with the "good news" that the lawyers had not only signed off on my changes but waived the requirement to sign the NDA.

In my old familiar world, the changes I'd requested would have been handled-yay or nay-in a flash. But the website, which makes its hay delivering fast service and goods to its users, was unprepared to treat my requests as routine. So the consummation of the relationship hit a snag that resulted in a long delay.

Welcome to the realm of colliding worlds, where the ways of one industry clash with those of another. Things weren't supposed to turn out this way. After all, in The Road Ahead (Penguin, November 1996), Bill Gates pronounced that the Internet would bring "friction-free capitalism." Entry barriers would fall. New competitors would leap freely into the midst of markets that had hitherto been buttoned up.

Indeed, the Internet has dramatically changed the way companies compete and customers buy. And many transactions have, for all parties, become more and more friction-free. But as the Internet's low entry barriers have tempted many businesses into alien fields of endeavor, some-like my would-be contractors-risk getting whacked by the natives when they show off their ignorance. So it's worth asking the question: Are old forms of friction simply being traded in for new and unexpected ones?

Perhaps. Consider partnerships between players from unrelated industries. Now, don't get me wrong. There have always been potential clashes when businesses partner with those outside their core industry or market segment. Just ask anyone about his first experience doing business with a government entity. You'll get an earful on how convoluted agency practices can bring commerce to a grinding halt. This is likewise true when for-profit businesses buddy up with nonprofits. Perhaps the most vivid public enactment of new-partner discomfort was the odd fit of America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc., as revealed in the clumsy public hugs and seemingly forced collegiality of the respective chairmen, Steve Case and Gerald Levin, on the day their merger was announced.

In the prefrictionless world, there might have been time to work through culture clashes. Now, however, with speed as the prevailing virtue, there may not be. Any company crossing borders into a new industry had better be fast, efficient and effective. Companies can't afford to get bogged down over whether one industry's standard operating procedures are better than another's. Businesses either need to learn the ways of prospective partners before they enter the fray or be prepared to quickly and flexibly adapt their own ways to keep commerce flowing.

There seems to be a dangerous assumption that successful business models, once created, can be happily replicated almost indefinitely. But to imagine that they will work frictionlessly with business partners from another world is myopic at best.

So what to make of online bookseller Amazon.com Inc.'s entry into the collectibles, electronics, kitchen, software, lawn and patio, toys, tools, and health and beauty markets? Sure, these added activities are all based on traditional retail businesses. From the customer perspective, it's not obvious that simply because Amazon.com has proven it can sell books online (albeit not quite profitably) that it can use the same methods to sell lawn chairs and works of art. But one of Amazon.com's brilliant successes has been consistently good customer service, so its legions of users might extend their trust in the Amazon.com brand to new product lines.

But that's the consumer side. The industries Amazon.com has entered into differ from one to the other, each operating in nuanced ways to get their products to market. Each requires a different expertise. You can't just put your book guys on the job and imagine everything will be hunky-dory. While it may be presumptuous to think I'll buy my window blinds from a particular website just because I also buy my books there, it's even nuttier to believe that an alien industry's supply chain will automatically fall in line when a site decides to do business in a market segment in which it has little or no experience. Making such an assumption could cost valued business partners-if for no other reason than discussions slow down to a halt because employees are speaking the language of Harry Potter instead of Levolor.

So it's not enough to harness the Internet's power to remove the friction that once existed between sellers and buyers. There is a decidedly bigger challenge: finding a way to remove the friction that exists among the various industries in which the Net's new-and nervy-partners will operate. One possible solution is to train and retain cross-border cultural agents who can act like native guides to help the first-time tourists navigate their way through the unfamiliar terrain of the indigenous business's unique ecosystem.

As for my own small experience as a misunderstood native, by the time the website's lawyers gave me a pass on signing the NDA and agreed to cross out a few restrictive lines from the writer's contract, the original deadline for the piece had passed, I hadn't worked a lick on it, and I couldn't fit the assignment into my schedule because I had moved on to other things-such as this article, which was consummated with a passing conversation and a handshake agreement. And that's about as frictionless as it gets.

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