"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 16 March 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Follow the Money



Not too long ago, journalists

followed the money in their

effort to expose corporate

corruption and political

malfeasance. Now they do it

primarily in the hope of picking

up the few stray dollars that

new-economy tycoons haven't yet

managed to stuff into their

pockets. This, at least, was my

conclusion last week after

attending Online Journalism:

From the Medium to the Message,

a conference in which the

panelists and attendees showed

far more interest in stock

options and news-driven

e-commerce than in the more

mundane concerns of

computer-assisted research or

online news corrections.


The pecuniary preoccupations of

online journalists are only

natural: If you spend so much of

your time writing about

peach-fuzz millionaires and the

world's most shocking

price-earning ratios, it's all

but impossible to avoid falling

prey to the occasional flash of

feverish money lust. "My job

consists of taking billionaires

to lunch and picking up the

check," quipped one scribe at

the conference. And while she

went on to exclaim that she

herself refrains from investing

in any of the companies she

covers, how many other

journalists can boast such

discipline? After underwriting

Jeff Bezos' Caesar salad and

Marc Andreessen's cheeseburgers,

after seeing the effects and

affectations of their wealth up

close and personal, wouldn't you

want to get in on the action



Because pretty much every hungry

cheapskate billionaire in the

world correctly intuits that the

typical Suck correspondent has

no expense account to exploit,

I've so far managed to remain

fairly indifferent to the siren

call of overnight wealth. And

yet after a full day listening

to blustery hornblowers tout

their publications' imminent

IPOs, and after being assured

that a site can indeed sell baby

carriages without affecting its

coverage of the best baby

carriages to buy, and after

realizing that the issue of news

sites reporting on their parent

corporations is actually such a

nonissue now that no one even

bothered to bring it up, I've

decided that I too am ready to

capitalize on the e-commerce




My only concern: Am I too late

to the party? After all, if

Amazon.com is truly the

cornerstone of the new-economy

paradigm shift, then doom seems

inevitable. Eventually, the people

who've been buying all those

books are going to log off and

start reading them - and then

what? Amazon's skyrocketing

sales will slow to a halt as

erstwhile Web surfers plod

through all 742 pages of

Amazon's top seller for 1998,

Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full. Sites

still hoping to make a go of it

from banner ads alone will lose

faith entirely and close up shop

as their pageviews suddenly

plummet. In a few short months,

one imagines, the Web will

return to the pre-Amazon days of

1994, when it was mostly the

terrain of Finnish physicists

and economically indifferent



Of course, that scenario

presumes that people do actually

plan to read the books they've

ordered - and this may not be an

accurate presumption. But

whatever happens - even if

Amazon's loyal, remarkably

enthusiastic patrons continue to

purchase books at a rate that

makes actually reading them

impossible, is this any

guarantee that such behavior

will inform other areas of

e-commerce? In the real world,

books are relatively hard to

find: According to the 1992

Census of Retail Trade, there

were only 12,887 bookstores in

the United States, for an

average of 1.71 bookstores for

every 10,000 households. Now,

thanks to Amazon.com,

barnesandnoble.com, and their

legions of affiliates, any one

person has access to over

200,000 "bookstores." Suddenly,

for the first time ever, books

have become a true impulse buy.

But what about products that one

can actually purchase fairly

easily in the real world,

products that we've already been

buying impulsively for decades?

Will they have the same

e-commerce upside that books

have shown?



As far as I can tell, the best

way to identify new-economy,

get-rich schemes is to fully

embrace the fun-house physics of

an environment, which, as the

recent eBay sale of a virtual

US$136 million Hollywood Stock

Exchange portfolio for $1,050 in

US tender attests, can forge new

currencies out of the ether and

then alchemize them into cold,

hard cash. In other words, the

more preposterous the idea the

better, which is why I've been

thinking so much about

Free-PC.com, the idealab

brainchild that plans to give

away 10,000 free Compaqs to

consumers who agree to license

their eyeballs to the company.

While most of the media coverage

regarding Free-PC.com has

focused on the over 750,000

consumers who've handed over

their demographic data to the

company, I'm more interested in

advertisers: Who exactly will

want to advertise to

Free-PC.com's audience?

Certainly not any manufacturers

of big-ticket items like

computers or cars. These people

have already shown they have

little desire to spend their

money on such products.


On the other hand, Free-PC.com's

self-identified skinflint

demographic will no doubt appeal

to deep discounters of

small-ticket items like soda,

potato chips, and beer. The

challenge, of course, lies in

maintaining the huge markdowns

that would make e-shopping for

goods that are readily available

in the real world worth one's

while. This can be achieved, I

believe, through the extension

of Free-PC.com's current

business strategy: Along with

free PCs, you must deliver free

shipping to your customers, and

as often as possible, additional

free products as well.



How can this be accomplished?

Through advertising, of course.

At the moment, Amazon is failing

to take advantage of one of its

greatest assets - the new

"package medium" it has created.

Each day it ships out thousands

of packages to its audience. And

each one of them is a potential

venue for multiple-advertising

impressions. Indeed, if Round

Table Pizza is currently

polybagging Pacific Bell

brochures onto its pizza boxes,

why can't e-tailers do the same?

When some enterprising online

entrepreneur starts offering

advertising-supported Budweiser

and Pringles, you can be sure

the growth of that market will

dwarf even that of Amazon.com.


Imagine the new world of

e-commerce that will follow.

It's a world where not just

books but six packs of beer and

rolls of toilet paper and even

bottles of aspirin arrive at

one's door in bulky, cardboard

packages filled with various

wasteful packing materials. The

environmental consequences of

such commerce will be

devastating. This devastation, I

believe, represents the next

great e-commerce business

opportunity. Whoever figures out

how best to capitalize on it

will make a fortune, and that's

why I want to meet with all of

the world's most visionary

recycling entrepreneurs as soon

as possible. Send me an email if

you're out there. Lunch is on


courtesy of St. Huck


[Purchase the Suck Book here]