James Benfield knew what he wanted: a taste of business outside the cosy world of Marks & Spencer. After 29 years there, he had a chauffeur and a competent PA. He had prestige and, most of all, a psychological comfort zone.
He was a member of the main Marks & Spencer board and had had a hand in just about every aspect of the business, including its e-commerce proposition. But in the spring of 2000, with no more promotions on the horizon, he quit to be executive chairman of a dot-com called Confetti. "I wanted to see if I could cut it without all the support a blue-chip company gives you," he said.
Whether he can cut it remains to be seen because the Confetti he walked up the aisle with stumbled on the way to the e-biz altar. Whizz-kid founders David Lethbridge and Andrew Doe had big plans: e-commerce, advertising, maybe even financial services. When those revenue streams failed to materialise, the company took stock of what it had: a brand and a lot of traffic, including 30,000 registered couples looking forward to their big day.
In other words, Confetti had everything but a way of making money. So it bought up its two largest competitors (and all their traffic), acquired old-economy mail-order business Burley House, and published a big, glossy catalogue. Brides can make their wedding lists and have them fulfilled online, by post or through a call centre. On the day I interviewed Benfield, the first 20 registration forms had plopped through the post.
Benfield says it's all about turning Confetti into a real business. "The excitement of the Internet allowed us to indulge in quite an unfocused proposition," he said. "What this shake-up has done is force us to tighten up the proposition and come back to the old maxim that you've got to be good at something."
Still, Benfield believes Confetti will be counted as a dot-com success. How? Because, like Amazon, it could only have emerged out of the "technological disturbance" the Internet caused. He's got a point because in the old economy you don't find businesses built around weddings, at least not businesses that attract $12m in financing.
Should Confetti fail, he fears for his reputation, but in the meantime says the education has been fabulous. He has no regrets. Well, not many. "There are days when I stand on the Tube and think to myself, 'What on earth did you do this for?'"
This was first published in January 2001