The rampant growth of commercial ventures on the Internet was brought to light by three Internet entrepreneurs at a meeting of the Software Entrepreneurs Forum/UniForum Open Systems SIG earlier this month.
What the standing-room-only crowd took away was not a formula for sure-fire success, but the knowledge that opportunities abound for those with the time and inclination to explore the possibilities.
Meeting in Palo Alto, CA, the SIG heard the experiences of:
Conru said his company's clients include the Stanford Shopping Center, a mall of 160 stores adjacent to Stanford University that uses Internet Media Services to advertise each of the stores on-line. Another client is the Association of Bay Area Governments, a regional planning authority that already had its own server but used Conru's company to help get more bandwidth and higher-speed communication, and to upgrade its server and put together an Internet package.
Among the services IMS provides are multimedia storefronts, interactive advertisements, customized product catalogs, video product demonstrations, searchable directories and databases, and instant customer feedback mechanisms.
IMS also works with programmers who are creating extensive background applications for the World-Wide Web (WWW). "We're a strip mall on the Internet," Conru said. "What we do is help people market their businesses." Another of his company's activities is a Bay Area restaurant guide that presents information and reviews on hundreds of restaurants interactively, allowing Internet users to add their own reviews to the ones already there. "Anything you want to put on the Internet or Mosaic we can do," he said.
Enzer was customer support manager at The WELL (The Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link), a San Francisco-based computer conferencing center for about 9,000 users, for three years. Then he founded ILC, whose mission is "to help people understand and use the Internet, and related technologies, to further their own agendas." An offshoot is Bay Area Internet Literacy, which has been offering outreach and training since November for people seeking basic information. Seminars, which are half the company's business, range from "Internet 101" presentations to workshops on specific fields such as "Internet for Business" and "Internet for Journalists." Enzer said he started the seminars as a kind of "one-room schoolhouse on the Internet." Prices range from $30 to $75 per seminar. Pacific Bell has recently hired him to do an in-house training session on software that the company plans to put on the Internet.
Kremen said he prefers to focus on a product rather than communication methods or services. Electric Classifieds enlists cable services and newspapers as partners in its classified advertising service and charges Internet users for browsing the ads, usually using credit cards. But he downplayed the chances for immediate success in such a business. "If you're doing a business on the Internet today, you're going to starve," Kremen said. A major problem is that while millions have e-mail, not enough have access to Mosaic or the other tools and services needed to gain access to the commercial products. Enzer noted, "There just aren't a lot of people who are equipped to reliably provide these services to the public right now."
Conru said that although the general public isn't using the Internet extensively now, especially commercially, he believes it's a matter of time. His objective was "to build an infrastructure that positions us to expand so that when this stuff comes about, we'll be able to jump on it." IMS looks for associates such as guide managers who supervise the content of WWW guides that provide merchant listings, as well as guide sales/developers who secure contracts or sell and develop WWW pages.
Factors working in favor of Internet commercialization, Enzer said, include "people's desire to learn things, fueled by a kind of saturation in the media" of Internet information. He said he also believes in "the ability of people to change their lives through using this technology." For example, he noted, "Ten years ago, you couldn't have done business with someone in Czechoslovakia [now the Czech Republic], even if it was legal" and now it's relatively easy.
Conru added, "The Internet is changing the way people lead their lives today. Anybody with a minimal amount of technical ability can put a page on the Internet. We have the ability to have a point-and-click environment, and I think that's really going to be the driving force in the next few years."
But Kremen leavened the discussion with another caution: "I think you want to kind of stay within existing human behavior. You can't run a business through Mosaic and make a profit." Conru and Enzer disagreed. Although tools such as Mosaic are now difficult for the general public to obtain and get working, companies are springing up to provide packages that make that process easy. "People are demanding more and more things on-line," Conru said
Conru also acknowledged the problem of "junk" information on the Internet, but pointed out the difference between dropping unsolicited mail into electronic mailboxes, and simply making it available to be accessed. Business will also pay for information on who accessed their pages, and how long and how often they looked, he noted.
"There are going to be islands of high quality, suburbs of mediocrity and other areas that are terrible," Enzer said. "One reason there's so much junk on the Internet is that not enough good stuff is offered now."
In response to a question, Enzer acknowledged that it's probable that fraudulent or ridiculous things will happen on the Internet. "Microsoft Word and a Laserwriter made a lot of people think they were graphic designers-and a lot of graphic designers went out of business." The probability of abuse and plain silliness is "way high," he said, but in spite of that, companies are going to find that doing Internet business is a necessity. "Having a Web server is going to be like having a phone number for some companies," he said, just because it's a medium that people will use for communication. "I, and I think all of us, are in the communication business. It has nothing to do with computers except that that is the medium that we're working with."
Kremen responded that "a better business is to be in the content business."
Conru said anyone who wants to get started with an Internet business can do so for about a $10,000 hardware investment and $500 a month for an Internet connection. All three entrepreneurs said their funding came from their own pockets or those of other principals.
For more information, the three entrepreneurs can be contacted as follows: