Publish date:

Live From the B2B Love-Fest

The party's great, just don't get caught with the hangover. Also, invites itself to the party.

I feel like I've been here before: The between-sessions mood at the

Robertson Stephens Tech 2000 Conference

is so clearly starry-eyed about the prospects for business-to-business e-commerce that it reminds me of the hoopla a year ago surrounding what we then called "Internet" stocks.

There were dissenters, of course, both then and now. The "smart" money -- fund managers trained to pay attention to fundamentals -- pooh-poohed companies like

(AMZN) - Get Report



(EBAY) - Get Report

and a host of others because they'd never make (much) money and because the competition would become fearsome. More to the point, the highfliers would have a difficult time growing into their valuations.

The funny thing about the naysayers is that they were more or less right. Many dot-com stocks now are down, though true leaders like Amazon, eBay and

America Online


remain at or above their year-ago levels.

In the interim, of course, scores of pretenders joined the fray, only to stumble. Some did so quickly, like recent nonstarters





. Others were the slowly falling knives investors failed to catch, like







. The latter went from being the subject of a puff-piece cover story in


to the single digits in less than a year.

The cynical money crowd generally calls it correctly, of course, even if it misses plenty of upside and fails to even attempt to pick the winners. Now you can see the same situation unfolding again in slow motion over B2B. Investors practically hung from the rafters Wednesday during a presentation that analyst Eric Upin speed-read on the market opportunity of B2B. Everything he discussed was in a report available to Robertson clients last week -- and

previewed here Monday -- but investors nevertheless hung on his every word. The message: The potential market is huge.

And yes, you can see where the enthusiasm for online exchanges, or marketplaces, is going. Pick any "vertical" market -- specific industries like paper or plastics or fluid-processing machines -- and muscular competitors are popping up daily.


, discussed

here Tuesday, already competes head-on with





runs something called

TheStreet Recommends

, which it claims is of particular interest to the $47 billion metals-finishing industry. Now comes word Thursday that



is creating an exchange with

Ispat International


, the global steelmaker. I will get at least 10 e-mails telling me about metals-oriented online exchanges I have omitted.

The opportunity certainly is huge, but not huge enough for every pretender to the throne. How long before


(ORCL) - Get Report

introduces And when will


(AA) - Get Report

present us with

(a real domain name, by the way, registered to an Old Brookville, N.Y., establishment called, I kid you not,



Remember the theme for 2000: faster, faster, faster. The craze will come on faster, add new entrants faster, pick winners and losers faster and, ultimately, fade faster than what came before it. A feature or a company?

I didn't want to like

, the San Francisco start-up that allows party givers to spam their friends, would-be friends and business associates with invitations to everything from ski trips and cocktail receptions to book clubs and bible-study groups. After hearing CEO Josh Silverman pitch his young company, however, I actually think the start-up might have a chance, even though I still don't like the "evites" themselves.

My guess is that if all goes well, won't ever last on its own. But if Silverman and his crew can deliver on their promise to "monetize" the many, many electronic invitations its members persist in sending each other, very likely will end up as a feature of somebody else's business.

In case you're one of the fortunate few to not have received one, an evite is a richly illustrated and automated invitation sent by email. Because folks use them to organize all sorts of social events, the advertising opportunities are huge, Silverman argues. Ski-equipment manufacturers, airlines and local restaurants all may want to get their logos and links in front of participants in a ski weekend. And evites are the embodiment of what's known as viral marketing. If you've received one, you're very likely to want to send another.

One thing hasn't done yet is brought in any revenue. It's spending plenty of money, though. It seems that every taxi in San Francisco that isn't painted with a



logo has an ad on its rear. All start-up CEOs gamely insist their company is headed for an initial public offering, and Silverman is no different. My bet, instead, is that he wants to emulate Yossi Vardi, who sold his


instant messaging business to AOL without ever paying attention to revenue. Evite only now is beginning to assemble a salesforce.

Careful, though. Creating electronic invitations isn't rocket science. Yahoo! already has

Yahoo! Invites

, and the list of other online invitation peddlers includes







Private, pre-revenue companies that talk at investment banking conferences are by definition either preparing to go public or putting themselves in play to be purchased. is building a neat business that many in the e-elite seem to love. Will it be the next Yahoo!? I doubt it. But if it gets popular enough fast enough, it could fetch quite a few shares of somebody else's publicly traded stock. And then Silverman will just have to worry if that company will have the requisite revenue and earnings necessary to keep its share price buoyant.

Adam Lashinsky's column appears Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, he doesn't own or short individual stocks, although he owns stock in He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. Lashinsky writes a column for Fortune called the Wired Investor, and is a frequent commentator on public radio's Marketplace program. He welcomes your feedback at