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An insider's look at e-commerce excess

As a manager in an Old Economy firm, all Brian Rossa knew about dot-coms and e-commerce was what he had read in the newspaper. Then things changed.

    As a manager in an Old Economy firm, Brian Ross naturally felt defensive when the proselytizers of the New Economy preached that the Internet "had changed everything" and folks (like him) who "just didn?t get it" would soon be bypassed by competitors who did.

    Well, he will have us know that he?s still doing just fine--certainly a lot better than all those dot-commers who have become dot-goners in the last year or so. Ross has written a book entitled "When the Caffeine Wears Off: De-Hyping the New Economy," in which he cheerfully kicks ?em while they?re down.

    Ross has written a book entitled In this book, Ross sums up his experiences after being promoted to the newly established title of "global e-commerce manager" at a company he describes as "a century-old Fortune 500 firm that makes products for the medical industry." He had previously worked in sales, operations and strategy, he said, and all he knew about dot-coms and e-commerce was what he had read in the newspaper.

    And it was all downhill from there. Ross tells one story after the other about dealing with total jerks. Before he took on his new job, he writes, his company had already hired a team of e-commerce consultants. At their first meeting, "the consultants asked if we had data about e-commerce to share with them. I thought they were supposed to share data with us."

    Ross says he finally handed over all the research he had done in preparation for his assignment, but exploded in rage when he saw the material credited as the consultants? research in their first presentation. And if that wasn?t bad enough, he says, when, against his better judgment, he loaned them a confidential company document, warning: "Don?t let this out of your sight," one of the consultants forgot it in the back of a taxi.



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    He tells of vendors of e-commerce products and services who seem to insist on talking in jargon: "Ummm, basically we take a static Web site and make it more interactive. Like I say, we can give you some perspective in that regard. We also provide B2C and B2B portals for your customers. Ummm, and integrating all your other areas of the company."

    "Do you know what this person is offering?" Ross asks. "Neither do I." He demanded to be talked to in plain English, he writes. "If they can?t, it?s the end of the call."

    He tells of vendors who seemed more interested in getting information than providing it. The vendor says: "I have a product that will revolutionize the way you conduct e-commerce." Ross says: "What is it?" The vendor says: "Before I tell you, why don?t you tell me what your e-commerce strategy is?"

    Ross asks the reader: "Why would I reveal our strategy to someone I?ve never met?"

    And then there was the dot-com that offered Ross?s company "the opportunity"--in return for $7 million--to be linked to the "third-most-visited" portion of a popular health information Web site.

    Ross says he was considered unreasonable by people in his own company when he demanded more information. But he persisted and learned that although the popular Web site received approximately 2.4 million unique visitors a month, only about 35,000--less than 2 percent--actually made it to that "third-most-visited" portion. Was a link that might attract a percentage of those 35,000 worth $7 million?

    Word of this book has gotten around and orders have been received from bookstores and from Amazon.com--the most famous dot-com of all to have never made a profit. In looking back at his first year in his new job--the period covered by his book--Ross reflected that he hadn?t made any money for his company, but he had saved it millions of dollars "by not pursuing some horrible deals."

    And since all that Ross discusses in "When the Caffeine Wears Off" are horrible e-commerce deals, you might get the impression he has total contempt for the New Economy. But, apparently he doesn't, since the way he managed to get his 162-page tome published was to patronize a dot-com called www.iuniverse.com. This is a company that promises on its Web site to put any manuscript into its computer for a $99 fee and thereafter, whenever a $14.95 order is received, print up a copy and ship it out. (The author gets a 20 percent royalty less shipping expenses.)

    Word of this book has gotten around and orders have been received from bookstores and from Amazon.com--the most famous dot-com of all to have never made a profit.

    Still, it does seem strange that a book that debunks Internet hype would itself exemplify one of the biggest complaints people have about getting information from the Web--that so often there?s no way to be sure the information is factual.

    By not identifying the company he works for or the people he works with and by making up phony names (like Hypemeister.com) for all the dot-coms he describes, Ross leaves the reader thinking: Yeah, the stories are funny, but are they true? Is there even really a Brian Ross?

    The answer to that last question, at least, is yes, according to Mary Morgan, business editor of the Ann Arbor (Michigan) News, which gave "Caffeine" a positive review that is quoted on Amazon. The News reviewed the book, says Morgan, because Ross is from Ann Arbor and was in town for a reading at the local Borders. He personally dropped off a review copy.

    As for the rest of the book, given what we know about the excesses of the period, the incidents the author describes are, at the very least, believable. Overall the book rings true. And it?s a good read.

     
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