I was on yet another industry-conference panel about e-commerce the other day -- this one at the South by Southwest Interactive Conference, which is young but turning into an important pit stop in the Web-business business.
Most of the other panelists' comments focused on trying to pick winners in e-commerce: Who's going to be the next
? Will there
a "next Amazon"?
We heard a lot of wise but conventional advice, none of which I thought would be very useful to someone trying to start a company or to invest in one. So when I came up to bat, I trotted out an idea I've been chewing on for a couple of years and one in which I believe passionately.
It went something like this:
The conventional advice in business -- from Warren Buffett, from dozens of "inspirational" speakers, from all those retire-rich-at-40 book authors -- is to find something you really love and build a business and life around it. Don't worry about the money; it'll come in time. Just look for something you love. My advice for would-be e-commerce entrepreneurs and for prospective investors in e-commerce companies is exactly the opposite: Find something you hate to do and then start or buy into a company that does that for people. Because if you hate it, probably a lot of other people do, too.
As I've written here, I hate going to
to find a CD, though I used to go often because I buy probably 100 CDs a year. I hate going into a
Barnes & Noble
superstore when I know what book I want, though I used to go often because I buy probably 150 books a year. (I
going into a big bookstore and just browsing when I have no idea what I want. But the inefficiency of a trip to the bookstore for a book I've already identified has driven me more or less permanently into the arms of Amazon.com.)
For me, both tasks were noise-level interruptions in my life -- exactly the kind of noise I wanted to clear out of my life. I'd vastly rather take a walk with my son or wife, read a book, fix a broken fly rod or do almost anything else than go on those tedious shopping trips. And in fact, because of great e-commerce sites, I no longer have to do either of those unwelcome tasks (with only rare exceptions), but instead, I can order over the Web.
I found something I hated doing; I found I could do it through e-commerce. Judging from the success of Amazon.com, a lot of others feel the same way.
More examples? Well, remember what a joy it was when you were in college to spend that nasty afternoon in the campus bookstore at the beginning of every semester? Remember how you'd dig through the stacks of used copies of whatever edition of Samuelson's
your prof wanted to use, trying to find one not in tatters? Or if you felt flush -- or likelier, because the bookstore was long-since sold out of legible used copies of the book -- you'd spring for a new one?
Forget that. I hated it; you hated it. Take a look at
www.bigwords.com, which is a complete college-text bookstore online. You can buy good-condition used or brand-new books in virtually any edition that may be in adoption on your campus. Soon, you'll be able to rent textbooks as well, for about 50% of the cover price per semester, which means you also won't have to go through the nasty buyback line at the bookstore at the end of each semester. (Or maybe worse, just give up and put that copy of
An Hagiography of American Business Leaders, 1880-1913
, on your bookshelf, telling yourself it'll be a great book to take down and reread every few years. Sure.)
Bigwords.com is doing the ancillary stuff right, too, like setting up a system to allow profs to post their courses' booklists and "book baskets" online, to make buying all a course's required texts a more-or-less one-click operation.
The Bigwords people are on to something big here: Find something people hate to do in person and let them do it on the Web.
Another? Andy Busey, who made a not-so-small fortune when he founded
, (recently reinvented as
), then sold the company's namesake product to
for its instant-messaging system, is back again with a new company:
. Living's going to sell first-quality, well-designed furniture over the Web.
Is that a good idea? Would everyone who likes endless trawls through furniture stores, looking for but never finding that just-right table or chair or bed, please stand up? Right: We hate it.
I know I hate shopping on the hoof for furniture. I think I'm going to love it on Andy's new site, which opens in a couple of months. It will be, in effect, a personal pipeline into the best furniture lines in High Point, N.C., the center of the U.S. furniture industry.
One more, a big one: selling groceries online. I'll go into this in some detail next week because it demands more space than I have here now. But while delivering groceries to your door from orders placed through e-commerce has some special and daunting last-mile problems, it fulfills that wish so many of us have to escape the tyranny of the weekly or even more frequent trip to the grocery store.
Sure, some folks like to go to a
, fondle the asparagus, caress the eggplant, then pay $5 for a half-dozen perfect strawberries. But for most of us, a "big shop" trip to the grocery is right up there with root canals on our life's lists of things we'd love to never have to do again.
Simple principle: If you hate it, you can probably make a bundle doing it for others on the Web.
Next time you hear people going on about finding something you love doing and committing to it, ask them if they're talking about business in general or e-commerce. If the latter, tell 'em about my "hate it!" theory.
It's a good way to spot winners and losers on the Web. And to shake up the too-conventional thinkers among us.
Jim Seymour is president of Seymour Group, an information-strategies consulting firm working with corporate clients in the U.S., Europe and Asia, and a longtime columnist for PC Magazine. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. At time of publication, neither Seymour nor Seymour Group held positions in the companies discussed in this column, although positions can change at any time. While Seymour cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites your feedback at