Tuesday, January 15, 2002

The Cyber Scene in San Francisco ~ by Renee Bakos

The Ghost of Dotcom Past

All year long Silicon Valley was haunted by the Ghost of Dotcom Past, which came to them at night with images of declining stocks, misused budgets, and a glut of employees sipping lattes. The redeeming quality of Silicon Valley, once heralded, as the "Entrepreneurs of the New Economy," was that they could never be accused of selling out to conservative corporate America. Not any more, said four CEO's, at the Churchill Club's "Strategies for Growth during the Downturn," who discussed how to overcome the obstacles to growth in a slow economy.
Mark Hoffman (CEO, Commerce One), warned companies "to fall back on good old fashion ROI."

Stratton Sclavos (CEO, Verisign), survived by asking, "Are we relevant and are we necessary?" and the slogan "Be the last thing that is shut off, before you close the door." Sadly, that formula didn't work for Pacific Gas and Electric.
Ali Kutay (CEO, AltoWeb), gave his eleventh-hour advice: "Stay away from anything that is called 'discretionary' budget."

Alfred Chuang (CEO, BEA), noted a survival trend in high sales for Alcohol and Cell phones. This synergy has little to do with the growing desperation for venture capitalists to find a date.

I don't know if these CEOs were simply being disingenuous about the Dotcom fate or bemused by the fact that it's not an obvious question whether there is a future. Any ambiguity on future strategy was cleared up by the "off-the- record" buzz: Fire everyone making under $100k. (Let the remaining people run the company.) Find more MIT engineering graduates (And slash all PR, and "soft marketing skills" of yore.)

Never mind that the average MIT engineer never actually turned their big ideas into any money, if only for the reason that they couldn't find the business school on the campus map. Never mind that the average computer geek has the communication skills of a mosquito, therefore creating a work place that resembles the Tower of Babel. Because the official exoneration CEO Chuang offered, is that "Silicon Valley is unbelievably expensive to do business in, when the average IT talent costs a company $300,000 a head." (Evidently, the over-inflated salary demanded by the average MIT engineer.) Go ahead, do the math. We're talking an investment that demands a Lloyd's of London policy just for a company to live here.

Fortunately, the ho-hum-ification of the Web didn't seem to affect the herd instinct at the seminar, "The 21st Century Boom - Four Billion Served!" CK Prahalad (Co-Author, Competing for the Future; Chairman & Co-Founder, Praja Inc.), presented what may be the largest, most overlooked opportunity of the 21st century: untapped money. The word is that every unemployed dotcommer lined up around the block to locate the money. Prahalad believes "Two-thirds of the world's population is untapped by today's capitalist system-those that earn less than $1,500/year." "For example," he suggests, "fishermen using cell phones while fishing, can locate fish schools at sea by tapping satellite-based information and deliver them to the nearest market where they are not oversold." One can only imagine the task of getting fish to use cell phones. There was no slow deductive process going on here; just a speeding of thought that enables one to leap over mental blocks to find extreme solutions. Einstein must have had days like this. The metaphorical light bulb pops on in your head and you consider hawking defunct Taliban gear on EBay. Above all, embrace something no one understands. You'll wow your critics, charm your investors, and open up a whole new demographic.

The Ghost of Dotcom Future

As if to save us all from a future of flipping burgers, in walks the Ghost of Dotcom Future, kicking off a the Web Guild's commendable "Open House and Job Fair", where a mob of hungry virtuosos packed a breathing-room-only space for a five minute pitch to recruiters.

Meanwhile, The Churchill Club will host "Thinking Outside the Dilbert" on January 15, when creator Scott Adams will conduct his new thought experiment called 'God's Debris', where the goal is to see if you can tell the difference between scientific 'facts' and 'creative baloney.'

Presumably, the message Dilbert and the Dotcom Future have in common, is "not to settle for living inside your box." Perhaps, because the things that "risking everything on a dotcom" has taught some of us, we could not have learned in cubicles: That a ship in harbor is safe, but that's not why ships are built. And if you travel beyond your own boundaries, you discover other risk takers, who will innovate and unite to survive. And, by embracing lessons of the past, it is harder to simply walk on a plane with a bomb in your shoe and try to blow up American innovation. In the end, taking a risk may be the one thing that saves us.