E-biz is business too

Internet: To be or not to be. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone thought of it as
another variant of B2B, B2C or B2E. There is so much happening in the Internet
world, that anything may be possible. For this reason it is critical for us to
take a hard look at what is happening around us and be able to see things in the
right perspective. Today, developments in the Internet world are like those on
the stock market. One good news and everyone wants to get onto the Internet
business. One bad news and everyone wants to get out.

Look what’s happened on the dot-com scenario. Today people talk of it with disdain.
People don’t want to touch it with a barge pole. The same people at one time
were dying to invest in them. I used to wonder what’s happening. Probably
never in the history of business was so much put on so little. Everything in the
name of the future. And now suddenly, it has all changed.

For
a lot of businessmen wanting to do business on the Net, such sea-saw swings pose
a lot of problems and only create confusion. Questions arise whether this entire
business concept around the Internet is on sound footing or not. And for those
who may think that it is, the question might still be whether the timing as of
now is right or not. And therefore the question: 2B or not 2B.

To
be sure, there are no straightforward simple answers. There are too many
developments taking place on the technology front. And there is a lot at stake
for a lot of big names in the IT industry. There is too much investment that
these companies have made in the technologies that they promote. Defending which
way the consumer goes, there is a lot to be gained and a lot to be lost. To
hedge their bets, these companies are cross investing in a whole lot of other
companies which according to them may be strong players in the technologies of
tomorrow. To that extent, the technology companies are behaving more like the
companies in the reinsurance business.

What
makes things more difficult is the hype that gets created around different
technologies. The IT industry has thrived on hype. The fact that so much new
stuff is happening in IT also helps create hype after hype. By the time one hype
dies down, we are ready with another. Memories of the biggest hype of the
century, the Y2K problem, must be still vivid in your minds. The user community
went through a lot of anxiety and I’m sure a lot of pain trying to solve the
problems posed by the Y2K bug. And the software industry made a lot of money in
the process. Come to think of it. The software guys are real smart. First they
got paid for creating a problem. And then they got paid for solving it. We would
love to be in that kind of situation, wouldn’t we?

But
somewhere, Karma always catches up. In the Internet world, nobody is sure which
way things will ultimately move. And this time it is the consumer at large who
will decide everyone’s fate. For at the end of the day, there will be strong
social factor that will also decide the direction of the Internet. This time
around the IT players themselves are not sure what shape business on the Net
will finally take.

So
what do you do? If you think these guys are going to give up so easily, you’ve
got it all wrong. What do you do when you’re not sure? As I said earlier, you
hedge your bets. That means put a little on everything. But we in the IT
industry are smart guys. We can’t possibly admit we don’t know where we are
headed. So we coin a new term–convergence. And create hype around it. Now in
the name of convergence, we have the liberty of investing in everything without
giving ourselves away.

Looking
at all this, it would be surprising if most people didn’t feel lost. At the
same time, they are aware that something of epic proportions is happening right
in their midst. They are keenly aware that the world is going to change
drastically. They sense that if they are not part of this change, they may be
left out. Not all of them understand the technologies relating to this change.
And that adds to their discomfort. They are not sure if they can need to the
advice of the technology brokers for these people may have a vested interest. So
what do you do? Again 2B or not 2B….

No
wonder that in times like these, people tend to rely a lot on independent
surveys.

We
had a survey sometime back on how the number of Internet users are going to
grow. How reliable were the projections? Depends on how you look at it. The
actual number of Internet users far surpasses the figures that were projected.
So all of us are very happy that we are doing much better than we thought.

Looking
at it another way, we might say that since the projections were highly
underestimated, a whole lot of potential or existing businessmen who might have
looked at Net business differently and way may have invested a lot more,
probably did not do so.

Closer
home, the NASSCOM, McKinsy report on the future of IT-enabled services has
created a lot of waves and interest. Anyone who has some spare money wants to
set up a call center. But where is the business? Do these people understand this
business? What would happen if all these people set up business based on this
report and were then not able to get business as projected? Would it be the same
case as the dotcoms?

Again,
there are no easy answers. And I’m not sure that we should even look for
straight jacketed ones. Technology predictions can be a tricky thing. One
out-of-the-way breakthrough could suddenly change the entire scenario. And where
so many technology companies are working overtime to grab a large slice of the
new market place, which development could change the entire course of events may
be difficult to fathom.

What
does one do in such a scenario? This question is more difficult to answer if one
looks at it from the technology perspective. Unfortunately, many people are
doing just that. And in the process getting confused. At the end of the day, we
need to look at it from a business perspective. And look at technology for what
it is–an enabler of business.

Since
there is so much hype around the Net, people end up asking, “What do I do to
fit into the Web?” Instead of asking, “How do I make the Web fit into my
business?” Sure the Web may throw up new business opportunities. But at the
end of the day it is still business. And one needs to apply the age old business
principles here too, i.e. (1) identifying target markets, (2) assessing and
meeting customer needs, and (3) providing reliable services.

What
has happened on the dotcom front is largely because too many people have got
into it without doing their homework right from a business perspective. And most
it has to do with the B2C segment. Everyone who got into this, obviously felt
that he had a great winning idea. But was it compelling enough for the target
audience to make a choice in its favor? Did the promoters have sufficient
resources to make an impact in the market in terms of creating visibility and
sustaining the name? And finally did they have a sustainable USP (Unique selling
proposition)? For if they didn’t, then anybody else with deeper pockets could
copy the idea and do them out of business.

Sumit Sharma
is Associate VP, Microland and author of a book titled ‘The Corporate Circus’

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