Net Prophet: Ding-Dong, Dot-Coms Are Dead

SAN MATEO (06/12/2000) - What do James Dean, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and Boo.com all have in common? They all died far too young -- all except for Boo.com Group Ltd., that is. Boo couldn't die fast enough, if you ask me.

And I hope many of its peers face a similar fate. Every day I read an article about another dot-com going belly-up and I almost universally have the same reaction: Yippee!

The current in-fashion sport is dot-com death watches (www.dotcomfailures.com).

With the change in stock market fortunes and the reluctance of venture capitalists to pour more of their cash down a black hole, the expected life span of some dot-coms is making fruit flies look long-lived.

You're probably getting sick of the stories detailing the shakeout. I know I am. But what can I say? It's too easy to resist taking the easy potshots. It's a wealth of cheap metaphors. Toysmart has been spanked. The DEN fell down a hole. Boo is a ghost. Not to mention Drkoop.com is on life support and CDNow is hitting some sour notes.

My heart is hard to the fortunes of dot-coms for one simple reason: Most of them were really stupid businesses.

Look at Boo.com. OK, that's too easy -- it's the current whipping boy of dot-coms and has come to symbolize everything wrong with Internet businesses.

It was too ambitious, spent too much money, and delivered too little. And, to point out the obvious, for a "fashion site," it was delivering some truly ugly clothing.

The real point is that the dot-com phenomenon represents an insidious trend:

Investors have gotten lazy -- and addicted to easy money. Throw a little money at a dot-com and voila -- a first-day triple-banger.

This is insidious because of what investors don't pour money into: companies that need investment to grow into world-shaping businesses, but won't do it overnight.

Toysmart, Boo.com, and The DEN collectively burned through more than $250 million. What could have been funded with that money? Photonics? Interface technologies? Nanotechnology? Quantum computing?

When investors get used to 100 percent returns in 6 months, they're less likely to fund an industry that will require years to grow.

Imagine where we'd be if investors hadn't put money into fledgling PC companies such as Microsoft or Apple.

Now that investors are realizing dot-com doesn't automatically mean get rich quick, they're putting their money elsewhere. But they're still looking for the triple-bangers. Right now that seems to be infrastructure. Don't mine for gold when you can sell picks to gold miners.

This is the right direction, but the stock-flip addiction is tough to kick.

Investors are still thinking in two-year time lines. Short-term investing will never net us a future.

Some businesses grow slowly: You don't reshape the world overnight. I take it as an encouraging sign that AT&T's wireless division tracking stock didn't do badly the first day -- especially in light of how many shares were on the block. In terms of the amount of money raised, it was the largest IPO in history.

And that's good because wireless is a classic growth opportunity. Only it won't happen soon. Despite the hype, wireless is not an investment that will net big returns in 12 months. It's a bet on the future.

Living in Silicon Valley, with all its wealth, I ponder the future a lot. What will people in the future think of the people who lived in this time? What are we spending money on that will have a lasting impact on the future? What will be our grand legacy?

If the death of a few dubious businesses means investors start to think -- at least a little bit -- about the future, it's a good thing.

So, forgive me while I do the Grim Fandango on the graves of a few dot-coms.

To the dearly departed dot-coms, I say adios, vaya con dios, and don't let the door hit you on the ASCII on the way out. The future will be a better place for your passing.

So who's going down next? Read the online version of this column (www.infoworld.com/opinions) and participate in my "Dot-com dead ducks" survey to let me know what you think.

Send e-mail to sean_dugan@infoworld.com. Dugan is senior research editor at InfoWorld.

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