Boys on the Brand
OK, so your business is online. Now what? Recent books aim to make your Web efforts pay off
There's plenty of advice out there about doing business on the Web. The trouble is, when do you find time to stop and read if you're supposed to be building an Internet business at breakneck speed?
Some of the advice, however, is worth heeding. For example, in The 11 Immutable Laws of Internet Branding, Al and Laura Ries tell nascent Internet companies that they need to be "fast," "first," and "focused." But even though they trot out examples of how some superior sites have suffered from being second, there's not a lot of detail about what to do when you discover that your site isn't first.
What the authors do well is articulate how important they think branding is to success on the Internet. They also advise that wanna-bes who are poised on the brink of taking their companies online need to decide whether they plan to use the Internet as a distribution channel or as a place to operate a business. If you plan to use the Web for distributing your already established products, then it's fine to retain your company's current name, for instance. But if "the Internet is going to be a business," they advise, "then you must start from scratch." As for coming up with a new company name, you'll have to go elsewhere for advice on that one.
In eBrands, Phil Carpenter doesn't tell us how to build a killer brand on the Internet either, but he does tell us how six successful Internet companies have done it. Of course, it's impossible to say how long those companies -- despite their high profiles -- are going to remain healthy, let alone stay leaders in their respective markets. There is good case-study material here and specific examples of what the companies have done well -- and, in some instances, not so well. But you'd be hard-pressed to take what you read here about some exemplary companies and go out and quickly construct your own Internet business.
Such hands-on advice does come in Digital Capital, by Don Tapscott, David Ticoll, and Alex Lowy. Their book is based on three years of research on what they call "business webs," which are partner networks of producers, service providers, suppliers, infrastructure companies, and customers -- all linked by digital channels.
Based on their research, the authors have concluded that there are five classes of business webs, and they give examples of each that most readers will recognize. What makes Digital Capital stand out is that while the authors join the Rieses and Carpenter in recognizing the importance of brand building, they actually take the time to study the market, analyze it, and draw some bold conclusions based on their findings.
The reader comes away with valuable ideas for replicating the models that successful businesses are using. Now that things are moving so fast on the Internet, that take-away is a must.
Good Stuff Cheap
In January 1999, as a witness in the Microsoft antitrust trial, Richard Schmalensee, the dean of the Sloan School of Management at MIT, tried to debunk the notion that the computer giant was a monopoly by pointing out that it indeed had competitors. Among the few he named was a small operating system called Linux. That testimony, author Peter Wayner suggests, put Linux on the map.
Linux is really a group of programs known as open-source software. The programmers who wrote the source code for Linux have shared it openly over the Internet since the early 1990s, enhancing the operating system and passing it on. By 1999 a growing number of computer experts were choosing free Linux programs over pricey Microsoft offerings for running some Web servers.
Free for All: How Linux and the Free Software Movement Undercut the High-Tech Titans is a fascinating story of how a motley group of far-flung programmers built a better operating system by sharing everything with everyone. It's also the story of how Linux began to see signs of triumph as it started taking business away from companies with more costly programs. As a result, Linux gave birth to a small industry of resellers like Red Hat, which repackages Linux with instructions to make it easier for novices to use and sells it for about $60.
The programmers who pioneered Linux may never see a dime from Red Hat's revenues or its August 1999 initial public offering. But they can still have the satisfaction of knowing that they collectively built an operating system -- using nowhere near the money and resources their competitors had -- that is now preferred by many over the ubiquitous Windows.
May the Force Be with You
Let's get this out of the way before we begin: Yes, there is a monk, and yes, there is a riddle. You see, it's about an egg, and ... oh, never mind.
What this book is really about is the education of a fabled Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Author Randy Komisar is not that entrepreneur. He's what he and his pals who hang at the Konditorei coffee shop like to call a "virtual CEO." Venture capitalists, we're told, bring in Komisar to meet with prospective company founders to get a sense of whether the prospects have the goods. The entrepreneur in this tale is a guy Komisar calls Lenny, a fellow who wants to start a business called Funerals.com.
Komisar meets with Lenny and hears his business pitch, but he's not sold that Lenny has the right stuff to make him worthy of a VC's cash. Ultimately, Komisar does give Lenny and his partner, Allison, advice on the importance of turning their endeavor into something that not only has big financial potential but also is something about which they're passionate. The rest of this parablelike tale unveils how our fledgling entrepreneurs get from Funerals.com and zippo capital to Circle-of-Life.com and "interested" money -- plus what Komisar likes to call a "whole life plan" for themselves.
Komisar clearly has experience and a levelheaded way of looking at the world of Internet start-ups and the capital that's chasing them. He also draws a distinction between passion, which " pulls you toward something you cannot resist," and drive, which " pushes you toward something you feel compelled or obligated to do." To Komisar, passion is clearly the preferred motivator. If you know nothing about yourself, Komisar writes, you won't be able to tell the difference between the two.
It's clear we're meant to believe that Komisar holds answers and wisdom. (Why else would people with big bags of cash call on him for advice?) But since he is narrating Lenny's story, it all comes off a bit too pat. Komisar sets himself up as the omniscient wise one, and he manipulates the device of coaching Lenny for his own purposes. When Lenny seems to miss the point at first and then appears to get much smarter as he comes around to Komisar's way of thinking, the author can give himself a good pat on the back. And the transformation is not entirely believable. You begin to feel that at any point in the story, Komisar will pull out his laser sword and cant: "Lenny, the Force is strong within you."
In the hypercompetitive digital economy, you don't need wizards and shamans. Sure, you might need a smack upside the head from time to time when you fail to see the obvious. But a sage who encourages passion but fails to stress the importance of cash flow ultimately may spell the end of your business plans. Of course, that would give you plenty of time to answer riddles...like the one involving the egg at the start of this book. If you're not busy building a business, you could look it up.
CEO of the Knot ( www.theknot.com), a wedding-planning Web-based company
The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. "It gives you an appreciation of life on a moment-to-moment basis, which is often how you feel when you're running a start-up," Liu says.
The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. "Gladwell articulates how viral marketing happens. It's a counterpoint to most of what I've read about online branding. So much of what happens in the consumer world -- and the Internet just accelerates this -- is by word of mouth."
Best business book
A Sense of Where You Are, by John McPhee. "This book held particular significance for me as a lifelong Knicks fan. In business and in sports, you have to recognize that you can't do it all by yourself. You need to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of those around you and be able to leverage them. That's how Bill Bradley threw those no-look passes."
Best book for newlyweds
Tao Te Ching. "When my wife and I were newlyweds, we got a copy as a gift. If we had a question to work out, we'd open it up, point to a page, and read the passage. That was really very fascinating," Liu says. --Jill Hecht Maxwell
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