Lessons Learned From An E-Commerce Adventure

It is better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all; and even more important to learn from your mistakes.

That is what I keep telling myself after having invested the time and cash equivalent to a Harvard MBA in an e-commerce start-up that has stalled and is winding down. Not a happy prospect in light of all the media pre-occupation with e-commerce success stories and the young millionaires watching their IPOs rocket into cyberspace. But the headlines ignore the more frequent stories of new e-commerce businesses that do not hit the stock market jackpot. Many of them either settle into a low-key niche or exhaust their resources and fold.

This is the story of an Internet venture that did not make the headlines, but offers some useful insights for entrepreneurs evaluating their own initiatives. The lessons learned are applicable to your own new venture or to an investment in someone else’s.

In mid-1998 we launched a new company called nxtNet (www.nxtnet.com) with the slogan … “taking you to the next level on the Internet”.

My partner and I both had prior successful entrepreneurial experience in computer products and wanted to start a new venture together. We decided to develop a business that would catch the next wave of e-commerce services for mid-sized companies seeking to do business on the Internet. After long discussions, searches for a unique service offering, and many draft business plans, we developed a market strategy and then chose Intershop Communications as our software development platform. This product had the advantages of being suitable for single or multiple online storefronts, and offered a flexible, economic and comprehensive solution. We committed to the product, staffing, facilities and equipment to start training and development immediately. The two of us provided the time and cash required to get started.

By October 1998, we had an initial product with application as an online storefront for an associated computer business. At the same time, we realized that the application had wide appeal to other computer dealers and could be sold as a multi-user database service and e-commerce resource. We had developed a consolidated catalogue of 85,000 computer products from multiple distributor product databases that allowed rapid search and comparison for product information, pricing, and current sources. Users could access the catalogue from the Internet and find a product by manufacturer, category, and part number, key word or price range and immediately see the alternate sources and prices with links to more technical information, preferred dealer pricing and actual stock levels. Additional features allowed the catalogue to be customized so that any computer reseller could present the database as his own online storefront. This option offered all the search and product information features to his customers, but showed only retail pricing and enabled the online ordering process.

The product offering quickly received positive feedback and strong indications of support from all the participants – resellers, distributors, and manufacturers. It was a comprehensive, powerful, and effective tool for buying and selling at all levels within the Canadian computer distribution channel. Resellers recognized the value in an online resource to save time and effort. Distributors and manufacturers saw the opportunity to promote their products, and major publishers in the industry wanted to offer complementary online services to their subscribers and advertisers. How could we fail with all this enthusiasm and support?

While the potential for success clearly existed, everybody had the same questions and reservations – “Who is there now?” “How many are using it?” and “I don’t want to pay until it’s bigger”.

Reasonable objections we thought, so we added features and content for free. We promoted the product with free trials and low cost subscriptions for reseller access. Then we coaxed, persuaded, sold hard, and made deals. The “contra” became the standard for obtaining press coverage, free ads, mailing lists and promotion in exchange for free participation and future consideration. Activity on the Web site and catalogue grew to 3000 visitors per month with over 800 subscribers and the distributor list increased from three to twelve.

But revenue remained near zero as most reseller subscribers declined to pay for the service. Reasons were “it should be free – let the advertisers pay”, “I don’t use it enough”, “there are lower cost options”, or “we built our own solution”. The audience did not grow fast enough even after we offered it for free, to satisfy the advertisers and content providers. Without persistent and conspicuous sales and marketing efforts, all the participants quickly lost interest. Meanwhile the costs of database maintenance, ongoing development, site hosting, Internet access, sales, marketing, and administration were increasing.

Clearly the old entrepreneurial model of controlling costs and growing revenue was not going to apply. We had to realign our profile to show how zero revenue and high initial costs could still lead to significant investment returns like other well-known Internet ventures. So from early 1999 we started an aggressive search for financing, estimating our requirements at $500,000 to $1,500,000 over the next two years before achieving positive cash flow. More business plans, spreadsheets, and glossy presentations to demonstrate future valuations up to $20 million, even $40 million.

We knocked on many doors, from banks to government agencies, from angel investors to venture capital, from stock promoters to business consultants, and again received lots of encouragement, but no financing. So the founding partners were faced with a continuing cash drain, no relief in sight, and the limits of their own resources rapidly approaching. It was time to put the project on hold. Strategic partners or investors might still be developed to proceed with the project, but the ongoing expenditures were stopped in late 1999.

So what are the lessons learned? We already knew that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We now also knew that big successes in the new economy require big investments. Entrepreneurs may start small, but large investments will be required from new sources to achieve significant success. And no one will put significant money into a venture unless it is the only remaining requirement.

The concept, product, development, marketing and staffing all have to be in place before an investor will provide the final ingredient – his cash. Exceptions are likely only where the management team has already succeeded in the same arena, or the investor himself can deliver the missing elements, such as customers or management skills. No investor is going to take the chance that the entrepreneur with a good concept or product will also be able to deliver the required management and marketing skills to succeed, after he has the cash.

Next time we will know better. And there are side benefits from this expensive learning experience. I can now admit that with the knowledge gained through our association with Intershop Communications, I was confident enough to make an investment in their stock on the German Neue Markt at 65 Euros last year. It went over 400 Euros last month and is still rising with their rapid growth and the prospect of a NASDAQ listing this year. Almost enough to recover my investment in nxtNet.

So the most important lesson is that education in the new economy is essential, and not free, but it can lead to success outside the original plan. Learn, be aware, and be aggressively opportunistic.

Shopping For Camping Chairs

If you have purchased camp chairs before, you know that you can find them almost anywhere: discount stores, sporting goods retailers, websites, even supermarkets and drug stores. As a result, you have probably never given much thought to where you should buy your next one.

On the other hand, would not you like to find the chair you really want and feel like you got the best price without running all over town or spending a bunch of time surfing the web? Assuming you know what you want, which of these many choices will give you the best deal? Let's take a look at each of these options.

Let's start with the least reasonably sources. Without you spot something in their weekly ads or happen to see the perfect chair when you are there shopping for other things, places like pharmacies, supermarkets and office supply stores (Yep … I've seen camping chairs there!) Are not going To have what you are looking for. You may get lucky, but these retailers should not be your first choice.

Shopping for camp chairs online looks like the easiest route. You can sit in the comfort of your home and browse through different websites while keeping your other eye on the ballgame. What could be simpler?

Unfortunately, it is pretty rare to find the best camping chair prices online. Generally speaking, you will find better deals in brick-and-mortar stores. Even the discount chain websites usually do not feature their least-expensive chairs … you have to get in the car and go look for those in person. On top of all that, you will probably have to pay for shipping, and then wait to have the chair delivered.

So, shopping for a camping chair online may not be the best plan, but it can save you time in researching the different types of chairs available.

The big discount chains often seem like the obvious place to look for a camp chair. They emphasize low prices, and they will indeed beat out the other retailers much of the time.

On the other hand, there selection is not always that good. You may not find more than four or five choices, none of which may suit your needs. Remember, these stores sell everything from groceries to dresses to HD TVs, so they will only allot so much space, sometimes one aisle, to camping equipment, and only a small portion of that to chairs. Still, if you just want a cheap, basic camping chair, these are not bad places to look out.

Your best bet for finding a camp chair, however, is probably one of the sporting goods or outdoor gear chains. These retailers will give a lot more space to camping chairs … sometimes more than one aisle. This means a lot of choices, so you can find exactly what you want.

Not only that, but because these retailers know how easy it is for you to just pick up a cheap chair at a discount store, they are almost always running sales that will save you a few bucks. Finally, if you have questions about a chair, the staff at one of these stores will probably be able to answer it. That beats the heck out of a blank look and a shrug.

After reviewing these options, you should be able to find the camping chair you want with less hassle and at the price you want. Take a look at your local discount store if you already have to go there for something else. Otherwise, you will save the most time and effort by heading over to the sporting goods place. Happy shopping!

Investing in Your Mental Well-Being

Hmm … where did I leave those keys? What did I come in here for? What was I going to say? Or in my case – 'you just asked me that question dad', to which I think, I do not remember getting an answer, in fact, I do not even remember asking the question.

Being mentally responsive and perceptive is something a lot of people take for granted and does not give a second thought to. Unfortunately, your memory is a precious thing that needs to be taken care of and kept 'in shape'. Believe it or not, we do not realize how valuable our memory really is until it is taken from us as we get older, or for some, when stricken with health issues.

Taking care of your mind means you will need to invest in things that keep it sharp and responsive. Believe it or not, it is as easy as having regular sleep patterns, uninterrupted rest, exercise, less stress and mental challenges. All of which, can cause a loss of mental alertness when ignored.

Investing in yourself is a foreign concept, especially for those with busy schedules and families to tend to. For example, mothers are unselfish and unwavering when it comes to their children. When a new mothers will tend to their babies while everyone else is eating. If she is lucky she will eat with the babies still in her arms or after everyone has gone to bed.

Improving your concentration and focus should be something you work at every day. If you do it consistently, it will definitely prove rewarding. Experts suggest that investing in certain food and brain fitness items will go a long way to sharpening your mind. Brain fitness is an actual term that means "the capacity of a person to meet the various cognitive demands of life."

To get your brain fit again, try:

  • Word searches
  • Crossword puzzles
  • Mind teasers
  • Sudoku
  • Scrabble
  • Taking a course in something new
  • Reading books that make you think

When I read the part about taking a course in something new, I suddenly understood why my children used to come home from school saying that their heads hurt. Learning a lot of new things is taxing and tiring, but education is an investment in their mental capacity, and should not be ignored. Teaching others is also something that keeps your mind sharp and thinking. Teaching a new college the ways of the office, walking a volunteer through what you do on a daily basis or helping your children with their math homework. All of these are good for you and should be thought of as investing in yourself.

In addition to brain exercises, physical fitness helps you maintain mental stability and focus. Studies have shown, and I have personal experiences that prove, that aerobic exercising several times a week will improve your self-esteem. Regular exercise clears your mind of everything else that was there and allows you to focus on the tasks at hand. Investing in a pair of running shoes and tackling a new and challenging sport will certainly pay off in more ways than one.

The phrase, you are what you eat, certainly applies when it comes to investing in your mental wellbeing. A deficiency in Vitamin B and Omega 3 Fatty Acids can lead to poor cognitive functions.

There are certain foods, seeds and natural health alternatives that have been linked to mental stamina. It is well worth looking into these items and investing in them. Some include:

  • Green tea
  • Dark chocolate
  • Garlic
  • Fish
  • Meat
  • Poultry
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Flaxseed

Antioxidant-rich foods are not only tasty, they're also good for mental stamina. They include:

  • Fruit: black plums, blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, sweet cherries, avocado, oranges, grapefruits and grapes
  • Vegetables: dark green leafy vegetables, orange vegetables, spinach and kale

In the end, investing in your mental health will not only result in a sound mind and body, it will also make a happier you. Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, "Concentration is the secret of strength." Go ahead, invest in your mental wellness for a sharper more efficient you.

Marketing Chocolate

Throughout history, chocolate has been marketed differently to different consumer types. Some companies like to show their customers that their chocolate has the most weight, by using digital scales and then showing what the price computing scales read on the actual package label. Yet, other companies prefer to create an upscale image, by making their products seem rich and indulgent. This article discusses the different ways to market chocolate.

1. Make a product that is meant for the everyday consumer. This type of chocolate is made for those who want an average chocolate bar. The packaging is usually very simple and the prices are the same or lower than the rest of the competition.

2. Create a rich and luxurious image for the product. This type of chocolate is set above the rest in price. It usually has gold packaging and has a look that is different from all of the competitors.

3. Organic products are becoming more and more popular, so making chocolate to appease this type of consumer is a newer marketing technique. In order for a chocolate to be organic, it must be approved by the USDA and some companies then go on to get certified organic by other more strict organizations.

4. Companies also want to reach out to the adventurous chocolate eater by using exotic ingredients in the chocolate. These types of chocolates usually have bold colors on the package label, to emphasize the exotic ingredients that are in the chocolate. Exotic ingredients may include, spices like cayenne pepper, or different fruits like passion fruit or mango.

5. Sugar free chocolate appeals to those who have diabetes or anyone who wants to reduce their sugar intake. The diet industry has really taken off in the past ten years and as such, so has the diet chocolate industry. People with diabetes or consumers who are watching their weight are able to eat chocolate that is made without sugar. This chocolate is usually made with artificial sweeteners and the packaging reflects this change. The wrapping and labeling on this kind of chocolate bar is usually lighter, to indicate that it is lighter in calories and sugar, therefore, making it a light chocolate bar.

6. Finally, there is marketing towards children, in which companies make a product that is fun with packaging that has bright colors. There are many chocolate producing companies whose target market is children. In order to attract children anywhere from two to sixteen, they make their labels appear bright and cheerful. These companies also make their companies seem fun and sometimes quirky to attract children to other products they may offer.

Chocolate has been a part of the everyday consumers’ lives for hundreds of years. It is only in the recent past that the consumer market for chocolate has been segmented into so many different components. The consumer market is also constantly changing, so it will be interesting to see what new markets come about in the next few decades and how the chocolate industry will deal with these future changes in the chocolate market.