Survive and Prosper

The bloodied Net companies still standing can now build lasting businesses

I couldn't stifle a smile when Chris Larsen, chief executive of online loan provider E-Loan Inc. (EELN ), recently tried to put the best face on the dot-com meltdown that has knocked his company's stock under $2--down more than 97% from its high in July, 1999. "If we can get past this," he said brightly, "we can do well because there won't be as much competition." Is it me, or does that sound like someone's whistling past the graveyard?

The thing is, he's also right. If companies have enough funding to stay in business--and granted, that's a mighty big "if" these days--it's actually a whole lot easier to build a company now. It's slower, to be sure. The rocket rides are over. But despite all the dot-com carnage, this may prove the best time to get on with building a lasting business. "Great companies usually come out of recessions stronger," says eBay Inc. CEO Margaret C. Whitman (EBAY ). And I don't think she's whistling, either.

For one thing, now that around nine out of every ten dot-coms has bitten the dust, there is indeed a lot less competition for those still here. The arrival of traditional companies online hasn't filled the void. And even if online retail sales growth slows from the 50%-plus of last year to the 40% that market watcher Forrester Research Inc. expects this year, that's a lot of opportunity for Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN ) and others. Goldman, Sachs & Co. analyst Anthony Noto thinks Amazon, for instance, may be the chief recipient of some $1 billion in online consumer spending this year that had gone to defunct rivals, such as eToys Inc. (ETYS ), and struggling ones, such as Buy.com Inc. (BUYX )

At the same time, nobody can spend like dot-com marketing VPs on Ecstasy anymore. So the survivors no longer have to fight free services, massive discounts, and multimillion-dollar TV ad campaigns. Notes Jeffrey P. Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com: "If you have a rational business plan and you like your business model, you like to see discipline in the market as a whole."

There's also a growing pool of talent streaming from the dead.coms. A few months ago, says Tim Tuttle, co-founder of networking technology and service startup Bang Networks Inc., "we could not find a single good résumé." On its Apr. 2 launch day, he was flooded with 2,000 résumés, many "really good." And suddenly, nobody's asking for free cars or huge stock option packages. Says John P. Levis III, chief people officer for online industrial marketplace FreeMarkets Inc.: "This is a much better market for employers."

Suppliers and landlords aren't so greedy anymore, either. Last year, Kmart Corp.'s (KM ) online unit, Bluelight.com, had to beg to get suppliers of information-technology services to do work, says BlueLight.com LLC Chief Financial Officer Chris Lien. These days, salespeople for those suppliers are posing as flower delivery people and college students doing papers just so they can get an audience with BlueLight.com's engineering chief. Result: He's paying 30% less for the same engineering and programming work.

Most of all, there's a palpable sense of relief that the boom's unsustainable pace has finally eased. That's leaving a little more time to think past the next financing and the next press release and instead hone the business basics. Drugstore.com (DSCM ) Chairman Peter M. Neupert says he can now concentrate less on unending expansion opportunities to support his once-stratospheric stock price and more on running his distribution center with greater efficiency. "I don't know that slower growth is a bad thing," says Neupert.

Of course, even some of the survivors aren't getting enough business. Drugstore.com, Web grocer Webvan Group (WBVN ), and other companies continue to struggle even though they have virtually no online competition left. For all the post-crash advantages, says Stephen Sprinkle, global director of strategy, innovation, and eminence at Deloitte Consulting, "it is an extraordinarily challenging time to be in business." But for those smart enough to survive, the worst of times may well prove to be the best of times.

By Robert D. Hof

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