I recently did a series of interviews with chief executive officers about the next 10 years and how the Internet would change their business. Most of the interviews were with Global 2,500 CEOs-people like Harvey Golub at American Express. But 20% of my conversations were with the leaders of dot-coms. Yes, the traditional CEOs were scared by the Internet and were scrambling to catch up. But that wasn't what grabbed me. The biggest revelation was the low quality of the dot-com CEOs when compared with the traditionalists.
What was missing? Many of the dot-com CEOs lacked depth, experience, and common business sense. Their commitment was short-term-three years on the average. They talked about their highly fluid work force, a constantly changing cast of characters, washing in on the promise of more stock options and an IPO and then washing out, post-offering, in search of another pre-IPO company.
The business thinking of these CEOs centered on simplistic and clich d mental models: "Be like Amazon!" "Advertise, advertise, advertise!" "It's a land grab!" "We don't want to be profitable too fast." "B-to-B is the place to be." There was a fanatical focus on valuation-getting public and liquid- while value, meaning what the customer eventually gets, was a back-seat discussion. In many ways, these companies felt hollow, lacking some of the fundamental ingredients of long-term success.
Four dynamics drive this mentality. The first is history. Capitalists and entrepreneurs look backward at companies like Microsoft, Sun or Cisco and perceive that first-mover status creates a tornado, in the words of New Economy guru Geoffrey Moore, that steals the air from competitors and locks up a market. The lesson: Go fast or die.
The second dynamic driving this trend is jealousy. Entrepreneurs see undeserving people getting rich fast, and they want their piece of the pie.
The third dynamic is the flavor of current capital. Public markets are gullible and ready to buy equity in half-baked or even quarter-baked "companies." Venture capitalists appreciate the window for quick-flipping and encourage entrepreneurs to think in the short term.
The fourth reason is greed. The thinking goes, "Hey, why get rich slowly with a lot of work when I can get rich quickly with not much work?" These factors are creating hollow companies that have limited experience, wisdom, commitment, long-term view, allegiance to the customer and sense of construction.
These companies are not built to withstand competition, they're not built to deliver sustained value and they're not built to last. The idiocy of the Hollow.Coms was embarrassingly revealed during this year's Super Bowl. By the third quarter the advertisements for dot-coms had become the running joke of the game. With the exception of a few good ads, most were a phenomenal waste of money. They failed to identify the company or critical information like the benefits and features being offered.
So what's going to happen? Some fantastic companies will be built that end up dominating the Internet economy. But let me emphasize the word built. It's going to take years; blood, sweat, and tears; developed wisdom; and enlightened business decisions to construct the truly stellar Internet companies. The hollow-coms will get trashed, along with a sinful amount of venture and day trader capital.
What does it all add up to? Number one, an entire generation of business leaders will be corrupted. They will have great skills in designing obtuse ad campaigns, doing barter deals, negotiating with investment banks and venture capitalists, and doing secondary road shows. But this generation will have no skills in marshaling sales forces, hiring executive teams, working out fair business contracts with customers, and building employee morale and culture that is sustainable beyond a two-year period. The dot-com generation will get squeezed by more skilled baby-boom managers and aggressive Generation Y newcomers. Former dot-com managers will end up working for their elders and their juniors.
Number two, the strong will get stronger. The Internet economy companies with dedicated, wise management will obliterate the hollow-coms. Jay Walker, Jeff Bezos, Meg Whitman and other high-quality, long-haul players will end up with a disproportionate share of their marketplaces, as the hollow companies disintegrate. Darwinian forces will take a brutal toll on the weak players.
Number three, the dot-coms can be beaten. Traditional companies have cowered in the shadow of New Economy wealth and "we get it" hubris. But a hard look reveals this to be so much hot air. A dedicated, focused, visionary, technology-driven, multi-channel campaign will kill a hollow-com every time. The hollow-com CEO won't have the patience for a sustained battle: "Hey, Kleiner Perkins is calling with the next 'new' new idea. I'm not going to hang here and slug it out; I've got another IPO to do."
Number four, the Internet economy's next leg will be a mad M&A scramble as the great dot-coms begin picking over the bones of the hollow-coms. This is going to mean fewer players, less advertising, fewer IPOs and a movement toward stabilized pricing and defensible market positions.