Reality in the e-business world Featured

9:43am EDT July 22, 2002
In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act, which allowed anyone with $10 and a frontiersman’s attitude to acquire 160 acres of unoccupied land and stake a claim in the West.

By 1900, nearly 400,000 families had filed for land under the law. But many homesteaders struggled financially and were forced to sell their land to wealthy landowners, who, in turn, built the huge ranches that pepper the West today.

Sound familiar?

Being first doesn’t guarantee prosperity or even long-term success. In fact, a similar scenario is unfolding today on the Internet.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Amazon.com wasn’t the first online bookstore. That distinction goes to Bookstacks Inc., founded in 1992 by Clevelander Charles Stack (see SBN April 1999).

While Stack’s site was mildly successful, it didn’t have the financial backing of Amazon. In 1996, Stack sold his company to Cendant Corp. for about $4.8 million and launched a new Internet firm, Flashline.com, which sells digital software components.

Cendant added Bookstacks to its Internet mall operations, hoping to gain ground against not only Amazon, but the growing field of online bookstores that suddenly included traditional brick-and-mortar giants Barnes & Noble and Borders.

Last year, Book Stacks’ marginal profitability caught up with it and Cendant put it on the block. For nearly nine months, the company sought a buyer who could integrate Bookstacks into its online operations.

Those efforts failed. So with little fanfare, Bookstacks closed its operations on Halloween and quietly faded away into the darkness of cyberspace.

A few days later, on Nov. 3, Cendant sold Bookstacks’ URL — www.books.com — to Barnes & Noble. And though neither party will say exactly how much money changed hands, it’s been reported the URL fetched between $4 million and $7 million.

The lesson of Bookstacks’ story is simple: When planning a Web initiative for your business, don’t worry about being the first one up and running. Odds are, someone, somewhere, has already thought of your great e-business idea. And they’ve probably put out their shingle on the Net.

In the big scheme of things, the strategy of getting there fast is losing steam. If you look around the Web, the notion of broad-based, all-encompassing Web sites and portals is quickly being replaced by specifically targeted portals for niche markets.

It’s not much different from traditional marketing — define your audience, focus your energy and resources, design your initiative, then implement your plan.

It’s as simple — and as difficult — as that.

As for Bookstacks, its fate was similar to that of many of those original homesteaders who had great ideas and a vision to build a home for themselves in the West. They may have been quick and claimed the land first, but a lack of finances and inability to adapt led to their downfall.

What’s more, future generations will forever associate books.com with Barnes & Noble. And except by a select few, Bookstacks’ history will be forgotten, much like those original homesteaders.

If you’re worried about your company’s e-solution, the bottom line is this: Spend your time wisely and develop a strong, strategic Web initiative that won’t be outdated by the time you employ it. And, most important, don’t worry about being first.

Instead, worry about being the best.

Dustin Klein (dsklein@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.