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Wednesday, 13 March, 2002, 11:15 GMT
Dot.coms ditch gimmicks to raise income
Steve Bowbrick, founder Another.com
Steve Bowbrick: "Grass was probably cheaper than carpet"
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By Mike Verdin
BBC News Online business reporter
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In the third of a week-long series of reports on dot.coms, BBC News Online discovers the legacy of the sector's partying and pool-playing culture on business today.
The in-office lawn, kept alive by a sunlamp and irrigation system?

That was the architect's idea, says Steve Bowbrick, founder of e-mail firm Another.com. says.

"It was meant to impart a relaxing atmosphere, be somewhere you could take a break," Mr Bowbrick said of the "hundreds of square feet" of indoor meadow where Another.com staff once roamed.


I found myself dancing face to face with Gisele, the Brazilian supermodel

Ernst Malmsten, Boo.com founder

"Grass was also probably cheaper than carpet," he claims.

"The trouble was it had a tendency to dry up and look like a cricket wicket. It was hard to keep alive."

So a year ago, as the dot.com depression took root, the lawn was "released" from Another.com's north London offices.

And the new economy's t-shirt wearing, pool playing, Friday night pizza-partying culture took a step nearer constraint by collar and tie.

Transformation

For the dot.com era promised not just a revolution in business techniques, but in office practices.

Chats over dry martinis replaced the traditional arid boardroom sessions.

There was no need for briefcases in the paperless office.

Out went wooden worsted and buffed brogues. In came dress-down Friday, all week long.

'Geek pride'

Such tech-centricities can be attributed to the anti-chic embraced by the movement's California pioneers, says John Browning, a technology watcher for 20 years.

John Browning
John Browning: "Silicon Valley influence"

"It was a Silicon Valley phenomenon. It came out of engineering culture. Being able to say 'I am so smart I don't have to dress right. OK?'"

"It was all about 'geek pride'. I'm a nerd and I'm proud of it."

Dot.com firms spawned, like Amazon, in a garage or, like Yahoo, in a caravan, retained a bohemian character as they grew.

Mr Bowbrick, an internet entrepreneur of a decade's standing, recalls a tour of Silicon Valley firms in the mid-1990s.

"There were slides going from the mezzanine floor to the lobby, that kind of thing," he says.

And with later increases in the sums poured into dot.coms came inflation in the fields and lawns of office gimmicks.

"I remember the circular which went round after Clickmango folded," says dot.com entrepreneur Ben Cohen, recalling the auction of assets belonging to the failed online health and beauty company.

"There was an inflatable boardroom which according to the list had cost 100,000, with furniture. It was going for 300."

Matchmaking

But if pool tables, slides and lawns were the adornments of the dot.com machine, alcohol was its lubricant.

Ernst Malmsten
Ernst Malmsten: Model ambitions

Sections in Boo hoo, the story of doomed fashion etailer Boo.com as related by the site's co-founder Ernst Malmsten, read like a pan-European bar crawl.

"I found myself dancing face to face with Gisele, the Brazilian supermodel," Mr Malmsten recalls of a party in Paris.

"In my fuzzy state I wondered whether she was now unattached."

Where alcohol proved a more successful matchmaking agent was at First Tuesday meetings, the monthly events which gathered UK internet entrepreneurs, investors and engineers and told them to leave their business inhibitions at the door.

Such events helped forge notable dot.coms, and place a stamp of exclusivity on UK neterati society.

Such meetings hailed Lastminute.com's Martha Lane Fox as UK net empress, while to the rest of us she was just the daughter of a gardening correspondent.

Yet they were gatherings which Mr Browning, one of First Tuesday's founders, still refuses to describe as anything but drinks parties.

"It was about saying all sorts of folk can start companies, that this is not just about people who go to the right schools and have the right degrees," he says.

"But they were just cocktail parties."

Ministerial visit

As if to symbolise of the new economy's conquest of crusty British tradition, it was at Lord's, home of English cricket, that First Tuesday gained its top 1,500-strong crowd.


OK, the internet bubble burst. But the spirit remains

Ana Alcaine,
E-Posium

The meetings even attracted government patronage.

Speakers included Treasury minister Stephen Timms who, a week before the Nasdaq's March 2000 peak, told delegates of government plans for "letting a thousand [internet entrepreneurs] bloom."

Old economy shapes up

Corporations also absorbed dot.com culture as they sought not just to exploit and understand e-business, but stop employees, or prospective staff, joining the new economy goldrush.

"It is easy to forget that in those days top companies were seriously worried they would be overtaken by a dot.com run from a garage employing a dozen people," says Colin Barrow, head of the Enterprise Group at Cranfield University School of Management.

"It got very difficult for your old economy companies when all second year Harvard MBA students wanted to do was leave to do a start-up."

"So firms tried to recreate some of that entrepreneurial atmosphere in their own companies."

Consultancies in particular set up incubators, centres which acted as nurseries for start-ups, and gained totemic status among dot.commers.

"Unfortunately it was not clear that many of these incubators knew any more about what was going on than the people they were trying to incubate."

Braced for fallout

So the stage was set, with the dot.com crash, for shellshock in the incubation sector.

It has yet to happen.

"Whatever the conception may be, incubators are not just to do with dot.coms," said Mr Barrow, who dates their creation, and name, to 1955 and New York, where a factory owner rented spare space to a chicken farmer.

"The late 1990s was but a distraction to the growth of a sector which includes science parks, technology parks and so on."

Nor have many of the dot.coms' other cultural trimmings frayed quite as ragged as many observers had expected.

In October, UK suit retailer Moss Bros blamed the continuing disregard for formal wear for falling sales.

And a pool table can still be found on the "chill-out" floor at the offices of London-based web services firm Ihavemoved.com.

'Sprit remains'

As for the matchmaking concept, First Tuesday has, despite two changes of ownership, yet to hold its last meeting.

Within the next month it will host sessions in Atlanta, Budapest and Warsaw.

E-Posium logo
E-Posium: Networking opportunity

"You must remember that in Eastern Europe we never had the boom and bust you did," says spokesman Stephen Carlson.

"This idea of meeting venture capitalists face to face, rather than having to organise formal meetings, is still new to people here."

And last month in Britain, the London Business School (LBS) held its third E-Posium, designed to promote communication between students and seasoned executives.

The event was a sell-out.

"OK, the internet bubble burst. But the spirit remains," says E-Posium organiser Ana Alcaine.

"People want to create their own companies, and to get the skills - and the network - to do that."

Dot.com dogma

Certainly there have been cultural casualties of the crash, notably the ".com" suffix which, devalued by "dot.bomb" and "dot.con" barbs, has been ditched by many web firms chasing stalwart old economy status.

As for the paperless office, Nigel Upton, head of LBS's Centre for the Network Economy, says he knows of one Cambridge firm which scans post and refuses to accept faxes.

"But you have to question if that is a personal campaign, or is something which is of value to the business," he says.

And whatever networks LBS students tap into at entrepreneurship shows, they are unlikely these days to link mains water pipes to in-office irrigation systems.

On Thursday, BBC News Online reports how entrepreneurs have tried to nurse ailing dot.coms through to profitability.

See also:

17 Jan 02 | Business
Lastminute hits profit in Australia
31 Oct 01 | Business
Boo's journey to failure
14 Feb 01 | Business
First Tuesday is sold - again
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