Internet Startups Strut Their Stuff

PALM SPRINGS, CALIF. (01/28/2000) - While the old guard of networking was struggling against heavy snow to get ComNet 2000 under way in Washington this week, a new wave of Internet startups was sunning itself in Palm Springs.

Here at the Showcase trade show, it was the Internet Gold Rush in action, and each company was putting on display its best ideas about how to make a buck on the Internet -- "monetizing," they call it.

The companies know that a good name, one that connotes hipness and e-commerce, is important to get the venture capital they crave. So the exhibitors included 40 companies whose names ended in ".com." Another 10 had names beginning with a lowercase "e," and five started with a lowercase "i."

Dan Niemann is convinced the next hot letter is "z" - or perhaps "m," as in "mobile." He is director of marketing at Zimba. Niemann says "zimba" means "tool" in Greek, but mainly the company chose the name because it just sounded right.

"We were like, 'Hey, it's Netty,' it's got a 'z,'" Niemann says. Zimba makes mProductivity, a service for helping mobile workers keep in touch with fellow employees and make travel reservations.

Several companies demonstrated Web sites that help individuals and companies find services. Examples included and eFrenzy, which let users order services from all kinds of providers, such as movers, photographers and plumbers.

Services uniting phones with the Internet were also prevalent. AT&T Corp. Chief Technology Officer David Nagel said in his keynote address that AT&T plans to release a service later this year that will enable computers to read e-mail to users over the phone.

BeVocal showed a service that will let users call BeVocal on cell phones to get directions, and the company's computers will read aloud directions taken from MapQuest servers. Lipstream Networks showed a service to send voice over the Internet. Sites can subscribe to the service, and any voice traffic will be picked up by Lipstream and sent over Qwest's network.

There were also several gadgets on display (see graphic).

These companies know they have to move fast to keep up with their competitors.

"Everything you knew four months ago is suspect," says Steve Larsen, CEO of Net Perceptions. His company makes software that looks for patterns in people's tastes and tailors sales to those tastes.

These companies also have to spend fast. It takes money to build a customer list and to distinguish a company from the market. "Our only limit is money," was a refrain overheard many times here.

One start-up, Netpliance, is banking on a Super Bowl advertisement to get the exposure the firm needs. The company brings together news, weather and other information for consumers, sells them a computer to view it on and acts as an ISP to bring it to them.

Netpliance wouldn't say how much it is spending on the ad, but those commercials don't come cheap.

Apparently, another big expenditure for these companies is merchandising. The conference tote-bag distributed at the start of the show was stuffed with items bearing company logos: four T-shirts, three baseball caps, eight pens, a yo-yo, four packs of mints, an alarm clock, a flashlight, a microphone, a stuffed octopus . . . you get the idea.

"What if all these companies' trinkets are better than their products?" asked Jeff Bonforte, CEO of

His question, not ours.