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Business Week e.biz -- Management
Let's Reinvent the Company
Online consumer sites are embracing a business-to-business model in desperation
On a mild New York City afternoon in late October, dozens of employees crowded into theglobe.com Inc.'s (TGLO) 22nd-floor recreation room. The somber mood was a far cry from November, 1998, when the popular Internet community site rocketed to fame with the fastest-rising initial public offering ever. The ping-pong table was folded up in a corner and the pool table was covered. The executives wore grim faces--and not just because the stock had plummeted 98% from those halcyon days, to 80 cents a share. They faced the monumental task of reinventing the company they had thought was a New Economy star.
Using matter-of-fact PowerPoint slides, newly hired Chief Executive Chuck Peck laid out the details of the company's recently launched strategy: moving beyond consumers and providing Net community services to other Web sites. The massive restructuring, he said, would slash costs and line up more resources behind the new business-to-business push. But the company's third-quarter results--a loss of $16.6 million on revenues of $6.7 million--showed the toughest job was still ahead, including laying off 41% of the staff. "We've had to overhaul the business," Peck says. Now, it's up to him and the 130 remaining employees to pick up the pieces and reassemble them into a sustainable business.
It's a scene now playing at dozens of struggling "business-to-consumer" dot-coms. In a bid to survive, they're exclaiming, "B2C? Not me!" Instead of trying to attract advertisers for fickle Webhead consumers, theglobe.com is offering concrete, useful services to real, paying businesses. In recent months, the flow of consumer companies toward B2B has turned from a trickle to a fire hose. The migrants range from Web delivery service Urbanfetch, which recently shuttered its consumer-oriented video-and-munchies service to become a business courier service, to publicly-held search engine Ask Jeeves Inc., which is drastically reorganizing its business to focus on providing search services to other sites. Even e-commerce software makers such as Vignette Corp. (VIGN) and InterWorld Corp. (INTW) are veering away from selling to consumer sites in favor of courting mainstream businesses.
Clearly, one big reason for the switch is that some of those business models never worked and probably never will. Indeed, much of the movement appears born of desperation, as wounded dot-coms try to leap on the next hot trend. Problem is, even that doesn't always work: Skeptical investors have pummeled some B2B wannabes, such as software seller Beyond.com (BYND), computer reseller Outpost.com, and online auction house Bid.com International (BIDS)--pushing each of those stocks below $3 a share. "Selling Internet ad space is an entirely different ballgame than selling services to businesses," says Bryan Kester, a project leader with venture-capital firm Redleaf Group Inc.Grand visions. Still, the redemptive power of the Internet is that it's a ready-made place to quickly reach and serve new kinds of customers. With the rapid pace of change on the Net, business-model mutations are not just possible, but virtually required to stay ahead. "Most Internet companies are changing their business models three or four times each year," says Patricia B. Seybold, CEO of market watcher Patricia Seybold Group. In the end, the success or failure of this massive business-model migration may well determine how powerful the Internet is as a tool for corporate change.
The toughest challenge for companies trying to make the shift is determining where to jump. It's often difficult to discern between vibrant business opportunities and flavor-of-the-month Internet fads. When AskMe Corp. CEO Udai Shekawat launched his knowledge-sharing software company in August, 1999, he was intent on creating great software. But when the AskMe knowledge-sharing Web site began seeing a significant jump in traffic and resulting advertising revenues, several company insiders--including Shekawat--began harboring grand visions of becoming an online megaportal. "For a brief time, we were going to take on Yahoo!," he says.
But after execs hunkered down over spreadsheets of revenue and market projections, they quickly came to their senses. Shekawat pulled in the reins last January and refocused his techies on writing software. Corporations began requesting AskMe's knowledge-sharing program for their corporate intranets. Today, just six months after garnering all of its revenues from online ads, AskMe gets 90% of its sales from corporate customers. The privately held company projects it will turn a profit in six months.
Once companies make their decision, they can't waste any time. The penalties for waiting too long are severe. Theglobe.com, for one, couldn't decide how fast to move into B2B services, so even as its online ad revenue stalled, the B2B side didn't pick up the slack. Now, with a severely trimmed workforce and less than $24 million in cash, theglobe.com's future looks iffy. Beyond.com also short-circuited its push to sell to businesses, thanks to a management squabble that kept it from running full-bore with the new plan. One camp wanted to move exclusively into B2B, but CEO Mark L. Breier, a consumer brand maven, wanted to stick with consumers. After mounting losses and executive departures last year, the company finally ditched the consumer push, but now the stock languishes at 63 cents a share.
By contrast, moving quickly to latch on to B2B opportunities while they're ripe for the picking pays big dividends. Ask Jeeves (ASKJ) first began licensing its software to corporations in 1998, two years after it began. Now, about half of its 750 employees are dedicated to supporting its B2B efforts, which pulled in $13.2 million, or 45% of revenues last quarter. The company expects to be profitable overall by mid-2001, with the B2B side turning a profit by the end of 2001.
Given the need for speed, it's crucial for companies to get their staff behind the changes fast. When Paula Jagemann decided last February to spin off a company to provide business services such as Web-site hosting from her consumer-focused OnlineOfficeSupplies.com site, she gathered over 120 employees for several all-hands meetings to spell out her plans. That helped prevent a mass exodus of talent, limiting its attrition rate to about 1% annually. Jagemann expects the new business, part of her holding company, E-Commerce Industries Inc., to pull in $15 million, or half its overall revenues, this year. Says Jagemann: "You almost have to behave like a politician, delivering the same message over and over to your employees."
Sometimes they have to behave more like the Grim Reaper. Companies that assume their current staff can adequately address an entirely new market are flirting with failure. OpenTable Corp., for example, cut its teeth as an online restaurant-reservation service for consumers. But after tepid results, executives realized there was a much bigger opportunity in providing Net-based reservations systems and customer analysis tools to restaurants and hotels. So last summer, the company overhauled its management team, including a new CEO and several top lieutenants. But a handful of employees didn't like the moves or the ensuing cultural transformation that made the company less cool. So new CEO Jeffrey B. Edwards fired the malcontents. "We couldn't let that negative attitude linger," he says. Brutal, sure, but that helped persuade investors to kick in an additional $42 million last month, a hefty sum in the current dot-com drought.Tricky maneuvers. Since changing business models isn't cheap, it's just as key to get financial backers on board early. For instance, HomePortfolio.com, which boasts a consumer home furnishings site as well as a B2B services business for furniture manufacturers, needed a cash infusion earlier this year. Execs made no bones about the fact that their true moneymaker would be the B2B business, and that their consumer business would fade. Investors bit, helping HomePortfolio.com raise $48 million in May. "This isn't the summer of VC love anymore," says HomePortfolio.com CEO Dale Williams. "You've really got to keep these people in the loop."
Jettisoning the old business, however, remains one of the trickiest maneuvers. When you're starving for cash, it's tempting to try to feed from two different troughs. But it's often tough to juggle two divergent business models aimed at both consumers and businesses. Even while starting to court business buyers last year, Beyond.com spent more than $20 million on consumer-oriented television ads featuring a naked man who was happy he could order from his clothing-optional home. But button-down business buyers may hesitate to make purchases from a company whose icon is a guy with no pants. Says Michael Dunn, CEO of Prophet Brand Strategy, a brand-consulting firm: "Associations with the consumer brand can often be a liability going forward."Crossing the chasm. Indeed, there's no telling which of these transformations will be sustainable and which will prove to be yet another harebrained dot-com scheme. Some companies that have tried to switch have utterly failed: After doing an about-face from a failed strategy to take on Amazon.com Inc. (AMZN), for instance, Value America Inc. (VUSA) tried to offer order-entry and fulfillment services to other businesses after filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in August. Too late. On Oct. 20, its assets were acquired by technology products distributor Merisel Inc. (MSEL)
The companies best prepared to cross the chasm from consumer to B2B e-commerce, say management experts, are those prepared for inevitable change from the beginning. For one, that means building e-commerce systems that can adapt to changing requirements. Timbuk2 Designs of San Francisco, for instance, had a computer system that allowed consumers to design their own backpacks. But analyst Seybold points out that it was flexible enough for retailers to offer the custom-bag service to consumers as well--providing a whole new revenue stream.
Mainly, the key is hiring flexible people. Some Net companies ask job candidates questions that focus on how they would react to turmoil and uncertainty. As the rapidly changing Internet economy continues to force fast changes in strategy, companies need to know how to roll with the punches and run with the new opportunities. "This is where a lot of change-management situations fall on their butt," says Ask Jeeves President Adam Klein. "You've got to have people who put the company mission first." Even if that mission changes almost as often as employees change their T-shirts.By Ben ElginReturn to top