E-Strategists: The Brains Behind the E-Commerce

FRAMINGHAM (05/08/2000) - Even before planning and executing an e-commerce project, you need an idea. Many of these ideas come from the brains of e-commerce strategists, who work in the realm of possibilities.

You'll find e-commerce strategists in brick-and-mortars, developing and executing marketing and business plans for the Internet. More often, the e-commerce strategist works at new Internet businesses and portal communities.

They don't come cheap. So strategic to the business are they, they work alongside the chief technology officer and often the CEO.

Reading Scott Banister's résumé, your first reaction is, "Hey, not bad for a college dropout." He founded two Internet businesses and sold one to Microsoft Corp. He is now responsible for starting new businesses at Internet start-up think tank and funding company Idealab in Pasadena, California.

Banister, 24, is the ultimate e-commerce strategist. All day, he has ideas, pitches them and oversees their execution.

An acknowledged technogeek in high school, Banister says he owes a lot of his success to luck and timing. In 1994, he started working on his computer science degree at the University of Illinois, the same place Mosaic (now Netscape) was born.

At that time, Bill Gates was making the PC a household appliance. And Banister was overwhelmed with the marketing potential of this new medium. As dozens of search engines popped up on the Web, Banister got his first idea. How could retailers easily capitalize on these search engine workhorses to make their presence known on the Web?

He and his college friends coded and posted a one-stop, self-help registry site that linked the retailers to the leading search engines. They named it ListServe, posted it on the Web and went on about their studies.

Small and midsize businesses began using it. Word spread, and ListServe became a popular service. The students added more service offerings such as ListBot, a tool for managing mailing lists, and renamed their company SubmitIt/ListBot.

They eventually merged their company with LinkExchange, a San Francisco-based banner exchange business. The merged company caught the attention of Microsoft, which was looking for a one-stop electronic-business service site for its small-to-midsize target markets. Microsoft bought the combined company in December 1998 and put all those services on an e-commerce development and services site called bCentral.

Rattling Around the Brain

For a while, Banister toyed with investing in Internet startups. But then he was approached by Bill Gross, who was looking for someone like Banister to help identify and nurture startup opportunities.

So now Banister creates e-commerce ideas, then figures out the best way to market them. His first priority is keeping ahead of the e-commerce curve. So he spends a lot of his time dissecting other Internet businesses from a customer perspective to understand what works, what doesn't and what could work better.

One of his first projects at Idealab was the March launch of ShopMarket.com, which mixes the online auction format with the online retail format. "I came up with the idea by looking at the market and seeing that eBay is a great open marketplace based on the auction format, but it's annoying when all you want to do is buy a used Titanic DVD and you don't want to go to Auction A, lose it, then go to Auction B, C and so on," Banister explains.

"So I came up with the idea of an open exchange format, like a stock market, where sellers can start markets for any type of product and post asking prices while buyers choose to pay those asking prices or bid on them."

Banister then developed a marketing plan, focusing on such concerns as which customer segments to go after at what stages, the most aggressive ways and promotions to bring customers to the site, how to keep those customers and how to cross-promote and share customers among Idealab's 20 e-commerce startups.

Although he has three years of hands-on programming experience from his college days (mostly in Perl, HTML and Common Gateway Interface script writing), Banister's most valuable skill is translating the Web's technical capabilities into a marketing plan.

You can hear it throughout his dialogue. It's peppered with phrases like, "This is what the Internet is capable of."

Radcliff is a freelance writer in Northern California. Contact her at DeRad@aol.com.

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