An earnings warning from
-- and the subsequent pummeling of the company's shares and those of its peers Friday -- have made investors nervous about the fortunes of Web-consulting companies.
Reinforcing those fears,
, a Viant rival, issued a strikingly similar warning Friday evening.
But the inauspicious events may also signal the start of a new era. Struggling at least in part because of their reliance on dot-com clients, which are facing financial constraints and scaling back their Web projects, Internet consultants like Viant,
are beginning to devise new strategies, analysts say.
"Panic creates opportunity," noted Moshe Katri, an analyst with
SG Cowen Securities
. "This is the last leg to drop." And it was painful. Viant's shares plunged $5.69, or 41%, to close at $8.19 on Friday, while Scient watched its stock descend $5.06, or 19%, to $22. So, what now?
First, analysts say, companies with a lot of dot-com clients will have to attract a greater number of
1,000 corporations, which clearly have the will and the financial means to improve their electronic-commerce offerings. In retrospect, the dependence on dot-com clients seems a risky bet.
"Any company that does not have a lot of exposure to the largest corporate clients will have issues going forward," said James Janesky, who follows Scient for
. His firm has not done any underwriting for the company.
Not only will many Internet consultants have to move their client focus from dot-coms to bigger, more stable corporations, they also will be forced to offer a wider range of services, analysts say.
For instance, instead of merely designing Web pages, they are starting to "integrate online operations with suppliers, distributors and customers," Janesky said. In other words, Web consultants must be able to make sites more effective, and more lucrative, for their clients.
But Viant just can't win. In a statement released Thursday, the company
told investors to brace for a third-quarter loss, instead of a forecast profit, and complained that many bricks-and-mortar companies are cutting back on Internet plans as the once-formidable threat from dot-com companies declines.
Then, less than 24 hours later, iXL Enterprises warned that it, too, expected to report a third-quarter deficit and lower revenue. The company, based in Atlanta, said revenue would likely be about 15% to 20% below the $119.2 million posted in the second quarter. It also announced that William Nussey had resigned as president.
In after-hours trading, investors pummeled iXL shares, driving the stock down to $6.50, according to
, a 22% drop from its closing price of $8.38. The stock had previously lost $1.19, or 12.4%, in regular trading before iXL issued its warning.
As electronic-commerce activity among the
1,000 companies slows down, competition in the Web-consulting industry could intensify. A confluence of factors could push the industry -- composed of about 30 companies that offer similar services -- into a period of consolidation.
"You just don't need that many companies," said Steven Birer, an analyst with
, a firm that helped manage Viant's initial public offering in June 1999. The climate has changed dramatically since then. Viant's stock is 87% off its 52-week high of $63.56.
The adjustments, which in some cases are already under way, could be costly, Janesky of BofA Montgomery said. Scrambling to "retool their sales forces" to reel in corporate clients, some will not be able to turn their financial luck around for at least six months, he said.
On Thursday, Boston-based Viant emphasized that it had begun a new service aimed at helping clients manage their Web sites, improving their relationships with customers and enhancing their day-to-day operations. The service is part of a wider bid to increase revenue.
"We are placing a greater emphasis on our business-development capabilities," Bob Gett, president and chief executive of Viant, said in a statement. "In addition, we are expanding our offering to clients, which is designed to allow us to support them post-launch."
But the message of hope failed to deflect attention away from a rather disappointing and unexpected earnings warning. Citing contract delays by many of its customers, Viant said it expected to report a loss in the third quarter. Optimistic analysts had anticipated a profit of 8 cents a share, according to
First Call/Thomson Financial
. In the comparable period of 1999, the company had earned 3 cents a share. Adding to Viant's stress, a number of Wall Street firms
cut their ratings on Viant stock Friday.
Third-quarter revenue, the company said, is expected to fall by 12% to 15% below the $38.5 million posted in the second quarter. In the third quarter of 1999, the company recorded revenue of $18.8 million.