Tech Industry

E-business must move away from fad mentality

Even with the dot-com revolution turning into a disaster, many of those in the trenches are nowhere near ready to give up the fight.

Even with the dot-com revolution turning into a disaster, many of those in the trenches are nowhere near ready to give up the fight.

What's needed, they say, are such New and Old Economy basics as a focus on brand awareness and delivery, an emphasis on service to your existing customers (rather than the rabid search for the always elusive "new customer"), a realistic appraisal of your investors, and networking with your peers.

This was the message delivered to participants at Wharton's Fourth Annual Entrepreneurship Conference from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1. Two of the conference seminars addressed these issues head-on, along with the general challenge of surviving in a world where losers suddenly seem to be outnumbering winners.

The first seminar, "Show Me the Money," emphasized how venture capitalists and bankers will be funding entrepreneurs in the wake of the dot-com shakeout; the second, titled "Dot-Com Survivors," discussed how New Economy companies can make it through the current downturn.

Dan Beldy, a partner in the San Francisco venture capital firm Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, dispelled the notion that no one is funding start-up companies anymore. His own firm, he said, invested $100 million in eight years through 1997, but in the last three years, it has funded companies to the tune of $500 million. It has no intention of stopping. "First, there is a ton of dollars out there. I still see a whole lot of billion-dollar funds," Beldy said.

"Second, this could be a great time for investors. Valuations are down and good ideas are still around. Third, we are still great fans of the Internet. This is not a two-year rocket ride. We all expected a correction sometime, we just never knew when and how severe it would be. We will just have to work harder to find the best companies."

John Lynch, a partner at Chase Capital Management, an arm of Chase Manhattan, concurred with Beldy's support of the Internet in the long term, but for now, Lynch said, Chase seems to be nurturing its existing portfolio of New Economy companies.

"We have invested billions of dollars and have a lot of hungry companies calling, 'Feed us! Feed us! Feed us!'" Lynch said. "In the past, that was no problem and we were still aggressively looking outside for new opportunities. Now we are putting out as much capital, but primarily in our own companies.

"In the early 1990s, it was pretty much the same," he said. "In our position, we feel we have to have 'A' deals. But the problem is that too many deals have been done in the last couple of years--and that means too many 'B' and 'C' deals that aren't as good. Still, we'll be ready for those 'A' deals because we feel the Internet remains a good place to be."

Focused but flexible
Panelists who participated in the second seminar noted that likely survivors in the dot-com world will be those who are the proper combination of malleable and stable--that is, those that can focus on certain business strategies but also be willing to change them quickly when the market moves.

"I see two big mistakes with start-up companies: brand awareness and delivery," said Jeffery Farin, the East Coast e-business leader for Deloitte Consulting. "You have to know what you are selling and to whom. You can't be all over the place. Most of all, you have to deliver. Customer service is a given. If you don't deliver your goods when and how you say you will, you have ceded the marketplace."

Farin also commented on what he describes as a "bigotry against existing customers. Too many times, companies want to expand and get a new customer. But the important thing is to develop a reputation with those whom you are already serving. The successful company has to have repeat business and good word-of-mouth. That's how you expand."

Andrew Olmstead, co-founder and head of corporate development at the Cambridge Incubator, a Massachusetts start-up advisory service, said that kind of networking-by-service is vital to a new company these days.

"Let's face it; the customers you already have, they are the ones paying today, and if funding slows, you will need that income badly. So you have to treat them right," he said. "And further, it only takes one screw-up with a big customer and you may well be marked forever. But if you get things right, especially with a Sun Microsystems or another big company, they will turn around and tell their friends and suppliers and things will take care of themselves."

The panelists all thought start-ups were spending too much money in the last several years on marketing and not enough on service. They pointed to companies like Pets.com, which paid millions for Super Bowl advertising and now no longer exists.

Only a year or so ago, panelists noted, venture capitalists tended to keep young companies for themselves. Rarely did they encourage promising start-ups to find funding anywhere but with them. If you were a VC with a hot company, you kept the whole deal under wraps as long as possible. The climate now, though, seems to have changed.

"Any entrepreneur who comes to us and says he is seeking more investors we look upon as a good one to deal with," said Chase Capital Management's Lynch. "There may be infighting to handle, but at the end of the day, we and they know there are more eyes on the deal, so the learning experiences will be greater."

Hummer Winblad's Beldy agreed: "The reality is that you are giving away more of the company when you do that, but the more mature entrepreneur knows that will minimize risk. For instance, if one venture capitalist loses interest, you have another to back you up...The important thing is not to get caught in the VC buddy system. Don't just let the VC pick his own partner. Make sure you know who you are co-investing with and make sure that is someone who will work just as hard as you, not someone who just wants a return on an investment."

Kudos to the well-connected
Wayne Kimmel, managing director of the Eastern Technology Fund, which supports first rounds of funding primarily to start-ups in the Philadelphia area, said he looks for companies that have done proper networking.

"Get lots and lots of Rolodexes," he said. "If someone comes to us, I want to know that they know the lawyers and the bankers and the suppliers in this area. How will you run a company if you don't know these people? That is how business, whether it is Old Economy or New, works."

Kimmel suggested that entrepreneurs join regional business associations. Kimmel, for example, is a leader in the Eastern Technology Council, a New Jersey-to-Maryland technology business group. It is essential, he said, to know the other people who are engaged in similar ventures. Dot-com businesses will thrive the same way old-line businesses did: through relationships with like-minded peers.

"It is gut-check time right now," Beldy said in agreement. "It may well be a Titanic scenario, where you are going to need luck and good relationships to survive. But it is also a time for good ideas and confidence...Don't go to the venture capitalist and say what you think he wants to hear. Do what you want to do and have things in place. If your idea is worth it and you show passion for it, you will get funding.

 
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