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E-commerce talent hard to find

As e-commerce heats up, a glaring talent shortage is causing start-ups and established companies alike to raid new ground for help with online efforts.

As e-commerce heats up, a perceived talent shortage is causing start-ups and established companies alike to raid new ground for help with online efforts.

Headhunters are now tapping any e-commerce expertise they can find, and finding plenty to choose in the fertile ground of such consulting firms as Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Group and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Forrester Research, among others. Analysts at these and similar companies get a bird's eye view on the evolving e-commerce landscape, and many are logging job offers.

Gartner has lost four prominent e-commerce analysts in recent months, although the company downplays the exodus, saying its turnover rate of 8 percent to 9 percent is no higher than it's been in the last five years. Nearly all of its rivals--with the exception of a firm that's about to go public--have been hit by high-profile departures.

"In an analyst role, you see pretty much everything that's available," said Kate Delhagen, a Forrester departee who left to join an Internet clothing retailer set to open shop soon.

"There's only so much talent out there, only so [many people] with experience," said Peter Gregory, senior partner with search firm Confidential Global Search. "The companies' future growth is limited by people they can bring on board, and generally speaking they can't get them on board fast enough," he said.

In a way, such movement resembles the well-known "revolving door" relationship between media and government, wherein former government officials are often highly qualified to comment on the contemporary administration, and media figures have observed events and issues closely enough to assert expertise in tackling the problems of government.

New recruits to e-commerce companies often say that they leave consulting for the opportunity to build a business instead of analyze it. Others see a chance to get involved in a historic economic change. And then there's always the chance to strike it rich.

Gregory trolls consulting firms for recruits to fill jobs at Net-based consulting start-ups, dangling this carrot of the chance to be part of a public offering. Most of the so-called Big 5 consulting firms, such as Andersen Consulting, Ernst & Young, or PriceWaterhouseCoopers, aren't publicly traded, so the equity appeal of a start-up can often work to lure employees away, he said.

"Equity is the gold out there today," he said.

"They're all being lured by the Internet gold rush," asserted Forrester spokesman Mike Shirer, adding that established firms can't match the equity incentives of start-ups. "Part of it is the get-rich thing," he said.

Bill Bass, formerly a top Internet analyst at Forrester Research who left to become vice president of e-commerce for cataloger Lands' End, insists money was not a factor in his move, however.

"We're at a point in history where consumer behavior is changing in a way it has never changed before," he said. "The chance to come to company like Lands' End and be part of that is a pretty powerful draw."

Bass's new employer enjoyed $61 million in Internet sales last year.

Carol Wallace, Gartner's vice president of public relations, said that recent departures pretty much follow the company's historical turnover rate. "This is not any kind of a change," she said.

Gartner's 800 analysts work in teams to cover 100 topics within e-commerce, so single departures don't affect clients or time schedules, Wallace added. "We never have one analyst who holds all the jewels," she said.

Nonetheless, Gartner Group has been madly recruiting e-commerce analysts since Roy Satterthwaite and Chuck Shih jumped to CommerceOne and Alyce Terhune and Dave Taylor left to start their own business-to-business marketplace firm, which is still unnamed.

Nor have other analyst firms been spared--Juliana Nelson bolted from Framingham, Massachusetts-based IDC in May for a Net start-up, and Dataquest's Allen Weiner headed for NetRatings earlier this year. Giga Information Group lost analyst Ira Machefsky to start-up venture capital firm Odeon Capital.

Jupiter Communications, whose digital commerce analysts are probably the most visible in the industry, has been spared the exodus. Perhaps it is because with about 40 analysts, the company is much smaller than its rival research firms and only last week filed for an IPO. The prospect of stock options that might soar in public trading may have kept some Jupiter analysts from leaving.

But that's not the case for Jupiter analyst Ken Allard, who jumped a year ago from Gartner Group to much-smaller Jupiter.

"I have opportunities to go to other places that offer equity opportunities as good if not better than Jupiter, but I chose to stay here because it's the best place," Allard said. Working with media-savvy Jupiter in New York, the world's largest media center, for cutting-edge clients is reward enough, he says.

"We get a lot of the same kind of dynamic experiences here that people get at 'pure-play' Internet companies," Allard said. "Analysts at other companies might be frustrated that they're not able to dedicate as much time on [the Net] because they have to deal with other enterprise issues."

Delhagen, the ex-Forrester analyst, went from Internet company Starwave to Forrester about three years ago. A month ago she left Forrester for an e-tailer named Lucy.com, which opens its virtual doors in October selling women's active wear.

"I didn't learn my lesson the first time," joked Delhagen, who is now vice president of business development at Lucy.com.

"I probably had the best job at Forrester, running the e-commerce research group," she said. "But I got the perfect pitch [from Lucy.com], for me personally and professionally."

Building a company from scratch also appealed to Delhagen, whose family ran its own business for a decade while she was growing up.

"Forrester makes real efforts to keep people," she said. "But like most companies when the employee makes up her mind to go, there's not much the company can do to keep them."