I would normally try and avoid mentioning Amazon.com, if only because everyone else mentions it, but the announcement that Time Warner and Bertelsmann are planning to combine their book-club operations is worthy of investigation. It demonstrates the trauma that even giants such as Bertelsmann and Warner are suffering in trying to find a workable e-business model.
Bertelsmann notably has embraced the Web wholeheartedly, but this seems like an odd decision. Ask any e-business specialist, and they will tell you that it is not necessarily the bookstores that have been disaggregated by Amazon's success (though some obviously have). No, it is the book clubs. Why join a book club when you can buy the books more cheaply via Amazon, learn about the reviews of others, and have book titles targeted at you based on your previous experiences.
That's undoubtedly why you tend to see fewer book club ads - it seems - in the Sunday supplements. So, Bertelsmann and Time Warner planning to combine their operations smacks rather of desperation. Apparently, it will unify marketing and back-office functions and help them develop e-commerce businesses. Bertelsmann's DoubleDay Direct owns 30 book clubs, including Literary Guild, while Time Warner has nine, including the 73-year-old Book of the Month Club. My guess is it's unlikely to celebrate its 74th.
Tthe First Tuesday Christmas event, held in a nightclub in North London attracted the usual wannabes, never-will-bes, and those-that-hope-to-provide-the-money-s. There is a learn-as-you-go feeling about some of these events, with new converts turning up each time. You only had to turn out of Farringdon station in London, around the corner and see the queue in a freezing cold December night to know that this was First Tuesday. Watching the cack-handed attempts of many trying to use the taps in the stainless steel loos - me included - was an education. "Use your foot, mate" was a great way for many to break the ice and chat to another potential contact.
However, from the look of some of the younger women congregating in one of the alcoves, they seemed to be plotting to marry a millionaire, rather than become one themselves.
Not every one was happy though. One disgruntled visitor, attending for the first time, had found the event less than satisfying. Dismayed at having been advised by one regular attendee "Don't ask for anything less than two-and-a-half million, or they're not interested," he summed up the event as "bullsh***ers talking to bullsh***ers". Well, there's no satisfying everyone.
But a serious point for entrepreneurial wannabes is this. According to Mike Abbott of Kew-based Redbird Communications, who was at the event, some of the visitors to First Tuesday are managers in their own companies. Yet when they come up with a business plan for an idea to present to venture capitalists - who are increasingly looking for ideas "with management" - they assume they are going to "be" the management, when they should be looking to recruit effective management for the plan - chief executive, finance officer and so forth. With "veecees" getting increasingly choosy, it's an issue many future First Tuesday visitors will have to address soon.
Another US giant updated its Web plans is Federal Express. Already with a reputation for having pioneered the tracking of packages via the Net, FedEx now plans to launch a service to enable its customers to review and pay invoices via the Internet. The bill presentment service, called Invoice Online, will allow customers to schedule payments up to 15 days in advance.
General Electric is planning to do much the same thing through its GE Capital credit card subsidiary, one of the biggest providers of private brand credit cards for other companies. It plans to enable the 300 corporate customers that issue cards through its credit-card operations, including Wal-Mart stores, to give consumers the choice to receive and pay their monthly card bills by computer instead of mail. GE has already begun one pilot project with cards issued by Exxon Mobil, and its embrace of the opportunity, already also grabbed by American Express, shows how Internet bill presentment is becoming the norm.