The Meditations of Chairman Pud

All of us have forms of entertainment we indulge in that we’d prefer others not know about. I’m no exception.

There have been mornings where I laughed aloud at the Trailer Park Adultery Wars played out on “Jerry Springer.” I used to be a major pro wrestling fan, but I finally detoxed from that…

I’ve had sleepless nights aided by a campy infomercial or two — preferably Miss Cleo, Don Lapre (God, I miss him!), or my long-time main man, Tony Robbins!

But I have another weakness that will further expose me for the sick man I truly am: I love autopsy shows, which might explain why I find myself wandering through the pages of F**kdCompany on a regular basis, marveling over the remains of deceased dot-commers and speculating on the remaining lifespan of those on life support, hooked up to tubes and scary-looking machines.

You see, it’s not good enough for me know that some company died or is dying. I like to know why. My dad always used to say something about learning from the mistakes of others, convincing me he was a F**kedCompany guy before it was cool to be one.

So when a pre-release copy of “F’d Companies” by Philip J. Kaplan (a.k.a., “Pud”) showed up on my doorstep, it will come as no surprise that — given the rainy day and a few hours to kill — I cozied up in front of my fireplace and read it cover to cover.

A quick read. No heavy lifting. But the discerning mind can glean a few valuable lessons from Pud’s brief postmortems on a hundred or so dot-com flameouts.

Learn the lessons from their failures, and you’ll be that much more likely to successfully turn yours into a LuckedCompany — an outcome far better than the alternative.

I’ll randomly open the book…

Let’s take eRegister.com for a start, which came up with an automated registration solution for about five organizations (YMCA, Weight Watchers, etc.). You and I are in a bar. I run this idea by you. Does this strike you as something that’s urgently necessary, something that creates incredible value for the client companies? You might politely point out the thousands of simple CGI clients freely available for download a self-taught programmer could get operational within minutes for any site that needs this capability (that’s after you rolled your eyes when I wasn’t looking). And, you spoke really slowly and tactfully so I would understand and not be offended.

Part of the diseased thinking some of us still have about the Internet is that simply by putting a product or service online, it will automatically be better. Well, guess what. If you don’t have something to offer that is clearly superior to existing alternatives — on- or offline — you are going to find yourself on Pud’s site getting skewered by SlashDot refugees. It’s not a pretty sight, I assure you.

Another random turn of the page… What have we here? CalendarCentral.com. It provided “private, shared online calendars for group scheduling.” Pud quickly points out a haunting resemblance to the functionality of something I’ll predict almost every one of you has on your system: Microsoft Outlook/Exchange.

Am I right?

If you are going to offer an online service in the hope of monetizing it, one good idea is not to go up against one of the most widely distributed products Bill Gates ever produced.

Call me crazy, but when I was launching ClickZ and planning competitive strategy, I had a motto that went: “Let’s zig while they zag.” So when we competed against publications run by people who were one heck of a lot smarter than I was (Iconocast, ChannelSeven, and AdAge.com come to mind), I made it a point notto take them head on but to serve the market we shared in a way that was uniquely suited to our strengths as a company — not theirs.

OK, the blindfold is back on — I’ll randomly open to another company. Ah! Wine.com. I have to confess I actually bought something from these folks. I bought a “wine subscription” for a then-girlfriend.

This is another area where bricks have got it all over the clicks. Instead of driving down to Andover Liquors, The Vineyard, or, my favorite, Butcher Boy (best meat and wine selection ever!), I had to sit down and navigate my way through Wine.com, unable to ask anyone for guidance and with an unsettling feeling that I was paying a huge premium for the dubious privilege of buying online and having to wait a week to try it. Ain’t gonna work when your sweetie pie is coming over for a wonderful dinner in about an hour.

So once again, we find ourselves wrestling with the question of bricks versus clicks.

Is the premium content, product, or service you are offering enhanced by having it available online? Next time you’re chatting it up with your neighbor, run your idea by her (she won’t steal it) and see how she reacts. If she starts with, “Well, why wouldn’t I just go down to…,” chances are you’ve just gotten bricked. If it doesn’t strike the average person as a perfectly sensible way to do it, you are trying to force a square brick solution into a round online hole. Let it go and move on to something better.

Many publishers moving from free to fee are convinced creating e-books and e-reports is a great way to generate new revenue. Once again, you might want to raise the question of whether the content you want to sell online is best received and best utilized in digital form. Is it fresh, unique, mission-critical information? Something people want now? Is it brief enough to read on the screen or small enough to be printed out on your Epson using fewer than 20 pages?

Go outside of that, and you might want to hook up with a good print-on-demand service that can slap a hard copy of your information into the hands of your customers in short order, with no hassle to you and no inventory to carry.

But I digress…

I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of “F’d Companies” — not because it is a brilliant book or offers unique insights you never thought of. I’d encourage you to get it because it will whack you over the head, page after page, with plain, old common sense. No buzzwords. No MBA mumbo jumbo. No charts. No spreadsheets.

Just stories about what went wrong and how the thinking was misguided.

You might see some of your own thinking in there displayed in all its naked glory.

Which means it’s time to think again.

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