Tuesday, March 13, 2001

The Cyber Scene in Seattle ~ by Larry Sivitz

With all the construction that's been going on around the Washington State Convention Center, it would have been easy to mistake your average-size earthquake for a few thousand pounds of hydraulic hammering. But not a 6.8 quaker!! And not if you're from one of America's square states, just visiting the Emerald City for the annual Net.Marketing conference, having never done earth surfing of any kind. Our sympathies to the event planners and the attendees. At least it wasn't raining!

In his keynote address, Direct Marketing Association president & CEO H. Robert Wientzen spoke about E-commerce using the metaphor of aviation, perhaps because we're also the Jet City and the world's leading airframe builder.

When the Wright brothers turned human flight from a dream to a reality in 1903, the distance between two points suddenly shrank and an entire new world of possibilities opened up. The world would NEVER be the same. Aviation steadily progressed. Success was no longer piloting over Kitty Hawk but crossing the Atlantic, which Lindbergh did to great fanfare and celebration.

And then something happened that cast a dark shadow. The crash of the Hindenburg. A fiery disaster that shook the country and the world. That powerful image loomed large in the American psyche, and on the giant screens inside the convention center.

Of course, aviation didn't stop with the Hindenburg. Engineers learned from the tragedy and put this knowledge to work...moving ahead in new ways.

"Well, I think the story of aviation is similar to e-commerce's brief history," said Wientzen. "Every advancement over the past decade has generated more excitement...and heightened expectations. You could feel the buzz! There was E-mail! Then the Web! Wealthy cyber lords were created in the blink of an eye. It was SO new...and looked SO promising! What could go wrong...?!"

"Look at it this way...the Hindenberg was quite capable of flying...the technology was there. Remember, it DID cross the Atlantic. However, it wasn't perfect, or necessarily practical for all occasions and purposes." Unflappable logic we think.


Hardest hit by the Seattle quaker was probably Starbuck's. In case you missed the news coverage, its excerpted forthwith:

Seattle, WA - Thousands were spilled and hundreds were injured as a giant tremor rocked the Seattle area Wednesday morning. Neither café lattes, cappuccinos, steamed chai, nor even the tiny espressos were spared from the force of the 6.8-magnitude quake. As Senior Investigative Baristas survey the damage, leaked reports suggest that as many as 10,000 hot drinks were spilled - many causing injury.

Survivors' statements:

Sophie: "My latte was everywhere! I always order a Grande, but after the earthquake I was left with only a Tall."

Ronaldo: "I had just collected my double tall non-fat decaf Caramel Macchiato when the terror struck. Running for the door, I practically slipped on a hastily discarded L.L. Bean catalogue. What good fortune, for in it I found a lovely Transit Rolling Pullman and placed the order right there from my Palm VII."

Chad: "Like, you're not going to believe this. Only yesterday my soy Chai leaves were, like, totally predicting this quake. In fact, today I ordered a Grande in a Venti cup because I was so, like, worried about spillage."


In other news, Seattle tech companies have been getting something of a reputation for "stonewalling." And, as one witty commentator pointed out recently, stonewalling is bad PR strategy. Why? Journalists, workers and Wall Street analysts don't forget when they're stonewalled.

Some recent examples: Microsoft remaining absolutely silent about the tech problems at its websites, instead of saying: "We don't know what's causing this, but we'll let you know as soon as we find out." And then there's The Cobalt Group, a company that helps automakers with their online dealings. John Holt, Cobalt CEO, emailed his employees that unions are not welcome at the company, in the absence of an organizing drive. In this case, wouldn't silence have been golden?

Perhaps the most extreme example of stonewalling occurred last month, when Amazon.com called a Wall Street bond analyst's report "silly." This is the same analyst (Ravi Suria) who's been issuing scathing reports about Amazon's cash-flow situation since last summer. Suria is saying Amazon is likely to face a credit crunch by this coming fall. Sure, Suria may well be too heavy-handed in his assumptions. But what he's saying is definitely not "silly."

If Suria's assumptions were silly, the convertible bonds issued by Amazon would not be trading at 45 cents to the dollar and yielding 18%, indicating that the company has a good strong chance of going belly up. If Suria's assumptions were silly, Amazon's credit rating would not be near the bottom of the barrel.

What should Amazon have said? How about: "We appreciate Suria's concern, and he does raise some valid issues, but his conclusions are entirely wrong."