MAY 15, 2000
COVER STORY -- E.BIZ -- THE E.BIZ 25

By: Dennis K. Berman


Mary Modahl

Modahl predicts that a raft of cash-poor e-tailers will flame out by yearend, victims of a get-rich 'cancer'


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Forrester Research
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Position: Vice-president, marketing

Contribution: In 1997, she was one of the first analysts to predict that business-to-business trading would be a big deal on the Web. And she championed dynamic trading--involving a host of buyers and sellers--rather than one-to-one haggling.

Challenge: To predict the future for an increasingly fragmented technology market. As a newly promoted Forrester exec, she has to keep the company competitive with larger rival Gartner Group and boutique outfits Jupiter, Yankee, and Giga.

Old-line retailers were supposed to have been Amazoned by nimble, guerrilla e-tailers. But Mary Modahl says traditional companies may turn out to be the 800-pound gorillas in this jungle. Forrester Research's (FORR) recently named marketing chief predicts an imminent--and bloody--revenge of the brick-and-mortar sellers. ''The virtual company turned out to be a big lie,'' she says.

Net hypesters, beware. Modahl, based in Cambridge, Mass., has become a trusted consigliera for e-businesses by bringing a piercing eye to the era of the New Net Thing. While many Net consultants specialize in one narrow industry, Modahl's clients include everyone from the Web site Travelocity to Johnson & Johnson.

Modahl's opinions have inspired momentous decisions. She helped nudge America Online away from hourly pricing to flat monthly charges. She persuaded the Weather Channel to begin distributing its info via links on thousands of other sites. Its Web site now counts among the top 25. And she was instrumental in helping Federal Express offer online package-tracking --in the Net's commercial Dark Ages of 1994, no less. ''She's spot-on at identifying trends, and she can articulate them in a way people understand,'' says Dennis H. Jones, FedEx chief information officer.

Her latest insights could change the way people size up Net consumers. Marketers traditionally pigeonhole consumers by their age, income, or occupation. Modahl thinks that when it comes to e-commerce, it's much more important to consider their attitudes toward technology. She separates the U.S. population into tech optimists and pessimists. That concept forms the basis for her new book, Now or Never, which lays out her vision that the e-business battle is still in its infancy and that ''traditional companies are only now beginning to fight back.'' She argues that 48% of Americans are still tech pessimists, who will rely on established brands and their sophisticated distribution and customer support. What's more, a raft of cash-poor e-tailers will flame out by yearend, victims of a get-rich ''cancer'' that has little to do with building lasting enterprises.

Skepticism and a fascination with research run in Modahl's blood (her mother is a UC-Irvine neurobiologist). After graduating from Harvard, she worked for three years as a loan officer scrutinizing credit applications. But she chafed under the structure. ''I was never going to fit. I was too outspoken,'' says Modahl. She still has a sharp tongue. Woe is the company that receives one of Modahl's signature putdowns: ''That's so-o-o last Thursday.''

Even back in the 1980s, Modahl could see the future. In college, she read Esther Dyson's influential tech newsletter, Release 1.0, and wrote her thesis on competition in the semiconductor industry. She found Forrester's name in a trade magazine and gave a blind call. Hired in 1988, she began analyzing corporate networking, which led to her uncovering the promise of the Net.

Unlike many of the newbie Net analysts, Modahl's wealth of industry-watching experience has given her a more balanced, long-term view. Indeed, analysts' reputations are most often made on their ability to predict correctly, and Modahl has proved uncommonly prescient. For instance, a 1997 Modahl report defined the huge opportunity for online business-to-business trading hubs. Of course, not every shot is a bull's-eye. Her prediction that the Internet would kill AOL's proprietary service was dead wrong. ''I'm still amazed to this day that they survived,'' she says.

Modahl's rise to prominence has mirrored Forrester's own emergence from a five-person, boutique operation in 1988 into a 500-employee firm with an $800 million market cap. In her new role as head of marketing, she is pushing Forrester into providing business-to-business market research. There she will find increasing competition from the likes of Gartner Group and smaller outfits like the Yankee Group and Giga Information Group. But Modahl isn't blinking. For now, she's at the top of the advice game, and it's no stretch to predict she'll stay there.

e.biz online
For a Q & A with Mary Modahl, visit ebiz.businessweek.com.



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