Thursday, March 6, 2008

Plenty of Room at the Inn

Since the commercial Internet began to seriously take shape in the mid-1990s, pundits have been eager to declare “game over,” anoint the “winners,” and deem all subsequently launched ventures to be “too late to the party.” An August 1997 article in the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Microsoft and CNET were joining “an increasingly crowded field now dominated by Yahoo Inc., Excite Inc., InfoSeek Corp. and Lycos Inc. The new sites will also face off against a host of other search services, including Alta Vista, HotBot, WebCrawler, Inktomi, Open Text, Deja News and Magellan.” Star stock analyst Keith Benjamin is quoted saying "There's a prize for first place. There's also a prize for second place, though I don't know how big the disparity is between the prize for first and the prize for second. I don't think there's a prize for third." More than a decade later, Benjamin’s observation proved true, as the largest search engine dominates the space, and the horse running in third is desperate to combine with the one in second. But no one predicted at the time that the search leader a decade later would be Google, a company that at the time existed only in the brainwaves of a pair of college students.

It can be difficult to look at a start-up and predict its ultimate success against apparently entrenched competition. I’ll admit to discouraging a friend from buying stock in AOL in 1995, because I believed it could never overcome Prodigy’s headstart and superior backing from IBM and Sears. And I have on my bookshelf “The 100 Best Internet Stocks to Own for the Long Run,” published in 2000. Based on a quick glance, I estimate that half of them are out of business or a mere shell. And of course the fall of giants is not just an Internet phenomenon, as IBM and AT&T attest.

And yet despite the brief history of the Internet, in which “entrenched” leaders can disappear quickly and new companies can rise meteorically, most start-ups are still greeted with “you’re late to the party.” The New York Times reported today on “Women of the Web,” a venture backed by a cadre of elite women from the book publishing, journalism, advertising, television and acting professions. The CEO, Joni Evans, was a star agent and chief executive for William Morris, Simon & Schuster and Random House, and thus apparently understands what people want to read. She believes that women over 40 (and with a modicum of intelligence) are tired of being talked down to on the Internet. So she’s putting together a series of “conversations” on issues germane to these women’s lives. Readers will enjoy informal and intimate musings of gossip columnist and TV personality Liz Smith, advertising guru Mary Wells, noted author Peggy Noonan, 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl, as well as stars such as Lily Tomlin, Marlo Thomas and Candace Bergen. Each of these women has staying power; they have all been in the public eye for 20-40 years. The site will develop a significant, and more importantly, affluential and influential audience, eager for the opportunity to read intelligent fare and interact with these icons.

Pundits, including the Times' writer, question whether users will use it in lieu of iVillage, More and other leading women’s interest Web sites (and it is worth noting that the Times ran this piece in its "Fashion and Style" section rather than "Business"). But this site’s audience is not visiting iVillage and indeed is not heavily using the Web at all right now. A core belief behind FindingDulcinea is that a large swath of Internet users significantly under utilizes the Internet because of how difficult it is to find quality, credible content. WomenontheWeb will build this, and people will come. As writer Joan Buck told the Times, “iVillage has always puzzled me …. I love the idea but it’s like Macy’s or something.”

The one thing I’d change is the domain name (yea, I know, glass houses. We went out on a limb with “FindingDulcinea,” and 18 months later I’m still convinced it’s a long-term winner). The Times article discusses the lengthy debate the founders had over the name. Liz Smith’s suggestion of “HotVoodoo” seems like a damn fine one to me. Ms. Smith, who claims to “still write with a feather” and faxes in her posts, has a great future as a domain name consultant.

And if Liz Smith can acquire domain name savvy, then this site's audience can use the Web more if presented with content that appeals to it.

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