Look, I'm upfront with you guys: Got jammed yesterday and couldn't put together the kind of column you'd like to see. But that doesn't really matter because late Wednesday
wrote a piece about how the big dot-coms would finally have their comeuppance as the little dot-coms, starved for cash, start pulling out of many of their alliances.
That got me to thinking about the column I wrote on
March 10 of last year headlined, "Time to Reflect About the Possible Risks of Internet Stocks." That may have broken the record for generating the highest amount of hostile email
received by this column. (Sent the
to the repair shop after
And they were angry about what, the truth? So, ripping off Cramer's famous rewrites, it's time to take another look at the same column (with my new comments in
If you had paid too much attention to the risks associated with owning Internet stocks over the past year or two (like the ones this column kept harping on), you would have paid a high price in the form of missed opportunity. However, at these levels (words I'll live to regret, no doubt) it might be wise, just for the heck of it, to think about what could go wrong. (Remember
Never mind, Dell. As it turns out, while my concerns about Internet stocks may have been early, they didn't necessarily turn out to be wrong.
It's one thing to compare some of these companies to
, which in its earlier days -- when its stock was a rocket -- traded at 10 times forward revenue. It's another to blindly believe in, say, an
at 20 times projected gross annual sales of $1 billion -- and we're being conservative by using gross sales, not actual revenues. If you use actual revs, and generously figure that the company will generate $100 million this year, you're still dealing with a stock that trades at a hefty 200 times forward revs.
eBay wound up going much higher before going much lower. But it has clearly carved out a niche as being the leader of its pack.
The purpose of today's sermon isn't to try to pop bubbles; it's to remind you that every company, especially those that are growing quickly, has risk.
Risk. Back in those days it was a four-letter word.
: There's no debate that it has rapidly developed a strong brand and loyal following. But it also charges a hefty commission, while an alliance between
does the same thing for free, relying instead on ad revenues. What if eBay is forced to revise its business strategy and switch to advertising? (Of course, you could argue: What if eBay
advertising?) There's also a flood of competition both on- and offline and a risk -- just a risk -- that someone will aggregate local auction sites. How would that affect eBay? (It may never happen, but you've got to consider the possibility.)
Onsale! It was taken out of its misery by Egghead.com (EGGS) . Seen Egghead lately? Splattered.
: Much of its revenue growth has come from sponsorship deals, but the pace of those deals is believed to have slowed and the prices of those deals are believed to have plummeted.
, according to my spies, reportedly did a deal for less than $1 million. (Buy.com wouldn't comment.) What if the slowdown continues, or if these deals are done at even paltrier prices?
And look at Buy.com today: fighting for its life! Not good for future revs to Yahoo!, which, by the way, is the class act in its space.
: See Yahoo! above. And what happens if subscribers, realizing they can get everything AOL has on the Internet, switch to
or some other provider? And what would happen if international growth were to lag expectations?
Here's a twist: When I move to San Diego I'll have cable access, so I'll be dropping my Earthlink and using what's now called Excite@Home. But I have to be honest: I don't think I can get my family to drop the AOL email.
: What would happen if a company like, say, Buy.com starts aggressively undercutting Amazon, forcing its margins to fall by half? And Amazon recently raised $1.2 billion in a convertible debt offering. What would happen if it got in a cash squeeze and couldn't make the payments on that loan, or repay that loan? (Just asking.) Eventually it will have to. And Amazon recently bought a stake in
, presumably using borrowed money (see the convertible debt). What happens if drugstore.com doesn't deliver the payback Amazon expects? (Fabulous site, by the way; have you seen it? Unfortunately, there are other good drugstore sites, too.)
As I've written in the past, Amazon's margins are already in trouble, but not because of competition from Buy.com!
: Aiming to raise $173 million in a convert offering (see Amazon, above, for risks); runs a well-respected online tech news publication, but has tough competition on the news-gathering front from
. A risk, no?
Yes, but let's face it, I'm biased on this one: Content is king as long as it generates revenues.
: Great for making travel reservations, but one of the pickiest of my jet-setting colleagues prefers
in what has become a crowded field. (What if others do, too?)
Preview has since been bought by Travelocity.
: Smart folks; good service. They count the ad spending of other companies as their revenue, for placing those ads on other Internet sites, while the typical ad agency just counts commissions of around 17% as revs for the same service. (OK, DoubleClick tracks who uses the ads, but what if Wall Street finally figures it out and treats it like just another ad agency?!) And what if
, a very large customer, ever decides to do biz elsewhere?
As always, there are risks you never think of, such as the debate over privacy issues, which put DoubleClick in the spotlight. The company, however, continues to chug along despite Alta Vista no longer accounting for a large chunk of revs.
: Both very good services, but what if users migrate to cable or ADSL (if and when it ever becomes available)?
Or what if the two of them merge, which they did! And, remember, I'll be dropping my Earthlink in eight weeks!
Everybody who uses it loves it -- when it works the way it's supposed to. And what happens if the cable companies can't get their acts together and roll out the service any faster? (I'm still waiting, and it's been a year since my cable company said it would be a year.) What if ADSL or some other broadband technology leapfrogs cable? What if, in the end, cable gets too many users and feels like the pre-cable days? (Just a what if.)
DSL has become real competition despite its snafus. Excite@Home, meanwhile, just can't get any respect on Wall Street. At least not right now.
: What if it can't ever overcome being a third-rate service that makes third-rate merger decisions?
Finally getting itself acquired!
owns a big stake in the search service, it's stopped taking porno ads. What if in the process it lost a big chunk of revenue? (Infoseek won't comment on that, other than to say it weighed all the implications of its move.)
Disney has since bought the whole thing. And I ask you this: Do you know anybody who uses Go.com? I forgot it existed until I wrote that last sentence.
The list could go on, but you get the picture: These are risks that may never materialize. (DID YOU HEAR WHAT I SAID? THEY MAY NEVER MATERIALIZE, SO GO BUG SOMEONE ELSE BEFORE YOU SEND THAT EMAIL!) But just in case they do, this column, as a public service, didn't want you to feel you weren't warned.
Couldn't have said it better myself.
Herb Greenberg writes daily for TheStreet.com. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, though he owns stock in TheStreet.com. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He welcomes your feedback at
email@example.com. Greenberg also writes a monthly column for Fortune.