Feature

All shook up: failed dotcoms

These days a successful dotcom is about as common an occurrence as an Elvis sighting. But the two have more in common than that, says John Charlton

Only the silly might think there's a connection between the long-gone King of Rock'n'Roll and failed dotcoms, but, if you look hard enough, there's something they most certainly have in common.

For those of you who aren't Elvis Presley buffs, or are too young to recall his demise, our convoluted tale must start with 'Colonel' Tom Parker, Presley's legendary manager and all-round scam meister.

Parker, who was never a colonel and was almost certainly born neither Tom Parker nor an American, stitched up Presley with, for him, the deal of the century. From the mid-1950s, when Parker signed Presley on an exclusive contract, right up to the King's drug and junk food fuelled death in 1977, the good 'Colonel' enjoyed up to 50% of the King's gross earnings.

Parker, who developed a career as a huckster in circuses and fairs around the southern states, used his piece of the Presley money action to fuel a gambling habit that gradually got out of control from the early 1960s onwards.

Thus it was that Presley was forced to appear in a string of appalling films, none more apposite than Viva Las Vegas, to, in part, ensure a steady income for Parker. For it was in Vegas that Parker's gambling habits became all consuming.

And as the 'Colonel's' debts mounted, Presley was forced, for much of the late 1960s and early 1970s, into a grinding routine of two and sometimes three shows a day at Las Vegas, with much of the income going to pay off the gambling debts that Parker was running up in the very hotels in which Presley was performing.

As Presley's drug cocktail addiction worsened, so the 'Colonel's' gambling habit hardened. And, as the King's health deteriorated, so the 'Colonel's' anxiety grew about the diminishing flow of dollars from the Presley machine. Time for some manna from heaven.

This came in the grotesque shape and form of Presley's untimely death. When told the news the 'Colonel' is reported to have said: "It's the best career move he's ever made". How true - within minutes of news of Presley's death breaking, sales of anything to do with the King rocketed, as did the 'Colonel's' income.

From then on Parker was able to fuel his Vegas gambling marathons with Presley-derived royalties until his own death, which happened in a casino, in 1997. How does this tie in with dead dotcoms?

Well, like Presley they are proving to be worth more dead than alive. Share certificates in well-known deceased dotcoms are now fetching far more than when everyone was fighting for a slice of the dotcom action. US Internet grocery supplier Webvan, which crashed at the start of July with liabilities of $106m, and losses of $829m, is a case in point.

Share certificates in the company, which fell to five cents each from a high of $34 have become collectors' items. The certificates, with their grocery bag logo, have been fetching up to $79.95 each on the Scripophily.com website. This site is, unlike most dotcoms, turning over a pretty penny through sales of dead company share certificates, old documents, and other paper collectables.

Auctions for the certificates are also taking place on the eBay site, where original eToys share certificates are attracting bids of up to $139. When eToys turned out the lights its shares traded at less than one cent, after hitting a high of $85 a share.

Unlike the poor saps who poured cash into eToys, Webvan and the rest, Scripophily.com's founder Bob Kerstein had the good fortune to be alerted to the market for dead dotcom share certificates by punters who deluged him with requests for share certificates in Internet pet food operation Pets.com, when it went to that electronic graveyard in the sky.

Since then Kerstein has kept a weather eye open for dotcoms in distress and has bought their share certificates so that he can cash in on the day of reckoning. Like the late 'Colonel' Parker (apropos Elvis) he remarked "they're worth more dead than alive".

Of course it's not all plain sailing for the entrepreneurial Kerstein and his ilk - they're running out of share certificates. So should you be holding shares in some ailing dotcom, ask your friendly broker if he/she can supply you with an actual certificate, then you may be able to salvage something from the wreckage.

Oh there was one other thing that Elvis' death and dead dotcoms have in common - they were both toilet.

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This was first published in August 2001

 

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