Funny old game

Just like football, the dotcom phenomenon has been a game of two halves. But the pervasive culture of blame is helping no-one,...

Just like football, the dotcom phenomenon has been a game of two halves. But the pervasive culture of blame is helping no-one, says John Charlton

They - probably Judith Chalmers and Anna Walker - say that it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Well, those of us who used to take our annual holidays in Whitley Bay know that neither option is true. Now many in the e-commerce sector are feeling much the same, especially investors.

For this is the year, according to the mainstream media, when the dotcommunists will see their roller-coaster ride to electronic nirvana come off the rails as loans and investors' cash runs out, the marketing and promotion stops, and the customers, who never turned on in droves anyway, return to traditional shopping patterns.

Of course, as any football fan will testify, when results aren't going your way, then someone is to blame. Unlike football teams, where there's always the chance of a saviour arriving, there is unlikely to be any such joy for floundering dotcoms.

Indeed the beautiful game is very much like the e-commerce sector. There are very few prizes available, no correlation between cash invested and success, unfounded optimism on the part of many backers, and, in both fields of endeavour, those who manage and play collect enormous material rewards.

There are also similarities when it comes to the blame culture. Although captains of industry and Americanophile politicians and economists like to preach about embracing risk and not being afraid of failure, this message has plainly not penetrated much of the national media. Acres of print and much serious air time have been given over to criticising and ridiculing founders and owners of e-commerce ventures that have not delivered success.

Indeed, the tabloids have enjoyed an orgy of schadenfreude (No he doesn't play for Spurs; it's a German word that means taking comfort from others' misfortune) in reporting the dotcom debacle. These reports tend to be very personalised with the likes of QXL founder? Tim Jackson, and dotcom queen Martha Lane Fox (once Britain's fourth most dateable woman, according to Tatler magazine), getting a level of publicity that investors' cash just can't buy. Although these people are somehow seen as losers they are among the real winners of the e-commerce phenomenon.

As I was writing this article, Lane Fox was worth at least £7.5m, and Jackson £6m, and that's not including their personal wealth. Unsurprisingly, the most high-profile dotcom casualty yet, Boo.com co-founder Kaysa Leander, lives in some style at a mansion in southern Sweden. In fact, dotcommunists like these are winners. They have, in many cases, amassed some personal wealth, made names for themselves as risk takers and entrepreneurs, and will be able to exploit their records and profiles in years to come. Again, very like the professional football sector where bum managers and average players can carve out cosy careers in the media and scampi-in-the-basket circuit once they've hung up their sheepskin coats.

The real losers in the dotcom debacle are the investors, especially the institutions who poured in millions, and the little get-rich-quick merchants that saw Lastminute.com as another utility-style float bonanza.

Less direct losers could well be the IT suppliers whose technology makes dotcoming possible. As much as they like to separate e-business and even e-commerce from dotcoms' activities, there's no getting away from the fact that dotcoms are the public face of e-business. If dotcoms are seen to succeed then faith in e-business as a whole will strengthen. Confidence is all when it comes to investment, and that is just as true of companies' investments in internal e-business systems as it is for ploughing money into dotcoms.

It doesn't help when IBM and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) start to blame their customers and members for not diving naked into the chilly waters of e-commerce. Both parties put their names to a warning which said that 'too many companies have FAILED fully to implement available e-business solutions and are, consequently seeing few if any of the expected benefits'.

IBM goes on to say that 85% of UK businesses have either chosen to implement a simple e-business strategy that lacks e-commerce functionality or back-end business processes, or have yet to implement any e-business strategy at all.

"Even some of the remaining 15% that have implemented full e-business solutions have not yet managed to make them deliver all the expected benefits," sighs dear old IBM.

If I were IBM and the CBI I would start banging on about e-business successes and pray that the dotcom sector throws up a Manchester United toute suite, rather than a series of Accrington Stanleys.

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