THE DAY AHEAD: Safeguard exits B2B investing, should you?

Larry Dignan
3 min read

Toss "B2B" into the old buzzword bin. Internet incubator Safeguard Scientifics (NYSE: SFE), which helped create the business-to-business e-commerce stock craze, is taking its cash and going elsewhere.

While Safeguard bailed out of B2B with IPO strong profits, some of you are left holding after-market gems like eMerge Interactive (Nasdaq: EMRG), an online cattle auctioneer and a Safeguard investment. If Safeguard starts a trend, B2B could mean boom to bust.

Safeguard, an Internet incubator, orphaned its B2B partner companies and said it will focus on Net infrastructure investments.

B2B: Land grab still on?

After shares of Internet Capital Group (Nasdaq: ICGE), a B2B incubator and Safeguard offspring, fell Monday, Safeguard went on damage control. The company said it would support its existing B2B investments.

According to a Safeguard spokesman, the company "sees Internet infrastructure and B2B as perfect complements to one another."

The next big thing

Safeguard gave its B2B partner companies lip service, but its actions tell a different story.

Safeguard tweaked its Web site and relegated B2B partner companies such as AgWeb.com and Nextron Communications to the "other" category. This redesign comes from a company that couldn't say "B2B" enough just a few weeks ago. Safeguard's site is now honed in on the next big thing -- Internet infrastructure.

The company said Internet infrastructure is an untapped market, but it has been hot for years. Ever hear of that little company called Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO)? How about Juniper Networks (Nasdaq: JNPR) or Sycamore Networks (Nasdaq: SCMR)? How about all those Internet software firms? How about the glut of e-services companies?

Safeguard isn't being visionary -- it's looking for a safer place to invest its money.

To put an exclamation point on its strategy shift, Safeguard took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal dubbed, "Anticipate. Dominate. Safeguard." Safeguard boasted it anticipated networking by investing in Novell (Nasdaq: NOVL) in the ྌs. In the ྖs, Safeguard spawned ICG. And now it has anticipated (at least a year late) that Net infrastructure will be the next big thing.

Maybe Safeguard should have simply penned a B2B obituary. The between-the-lines reading of the Safeguard announcement is this: The B2B run is done, so we're bailing.

A good thing?

But Safeguard's B2B exodus could be seen as a good thing. There are already too many B2B middlemen going public with questionable prospects.

When revenue-impaired companies such as B2Bstores.com (Nasdaq: BTBC) go public, you know you're hitting the irrational exuberance point.

Safeguard's exit could even head off a B2B collapse, especially if other venture capitalists follow. If funding dries up, the B2Bstores.coms of the world will never make it public until they build a real business.

Contrary to Monday's trading of ICG and other B2B stocks, a B2B shakeout would only help the current leaders. Companies like VerticalNet (Nasdaq: VERT) are partnering with bellwethers such as Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and building barriers to entry. Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL), Commerce One (Nasdaq: CMRC), Ariba (Nasdaq: ARBA) and i2 (Nasdaq: ITWO) supply the B2B software.

The ICG effect

Safeguard execs were sure to mention that they were "extremely supportive" of ICG and its other B2B partner companies.

But Safeguard's B2B exit does cast some doubt on ICG, which is focused on B2B companies.

A spokeswoman for ICG said the company's strategy won't change. B2B is ICG's core competency, and the company is determined to generate IPO winners such as Breakaway Solutions (Nasdaq: BWAY). "The land grab is not over yet," she said.

ICG said it plans to invest in the B2B leaders. The company also said it's premature to predict a B2C-like (business-to-consumer) collapse. ICG is so confident that it doesn't plan to expand its investments around to other categories.

Good move? We'll see. ICG is betting its market capitalization that B2B will continue to produce IPO hits. If ICG is wrong and Safeguard is right, look out below.