Make Yourself a Startup

FRAMINGHAM (01/31/2000) - You know what the worst thing about a gold rush is?

The rush goes on long after the gold is gone. More than 80,000 people flooded California in 1849, but only a microscopically small number of them found any of the gold for which they crossed a continent.

The same thing's happening on the Web, which is luring hopeful, ambitious people out of corporate IT departments into exciting new dot-com jobs - jobs that offer the dream of quick riches through stock options. But today, there's little realistic chance of that dream coming true.

That wasn't the case corporate for the pioneering risk-takers who made the leap a few years ago. But we're now five years into the Internet revolution. Today, competitors are many; startup successes are comparatively few. And a recent Ernst & Young LLP study showed that half of Web startups have no plans to go public. So much for striking it rich with an IPO. But maybe you can start a gold rush of your own.

What if you gave your IT people the mission of launching your company into the soon-to-be-worth-trillions B-to-B e-commerce market, rather than keeping most of them focused on housekeeping and low-yield infrastructure jobs? Don't you think your crew would get fired up?

Big-time business-to-business projects require figuring out the complex relationships among large companies and their suppliers, especially when moving those relationships online means exploring a jungle of legacy technology in addition to the shiny new stuff.

What startup can do that?

How about splitting off the business-to-business unit into a semi-independent organization and launching a tracking stock you can use for incentives, as Staples.com recently did when it separated from parent Staples Inc.?

Wouldn't that satisfy the stock option yen? Some of it, at least?

A tracking stock spun off by a stable company would be an easier ride than a dot-com stock but would still offer a good payoff. With that incentive, many corporate IT people might just decide that stability and a (barely) manageable workload make up for the sexiness of having .com on their business card.

There's not much you can do about IT people who are determined to head online, regardless of the risk. When the gold bug bites, some people just have to chase that dream. Millions of people also play the lottery every day. And lose.

But you can drive harder to turn your existing business into an e-business.

That may keep your key people from succumbing to gold rush fever. And maybe yourself, as well.

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