I wish we could start this whole Web investment period over. I wish we could because there are some very viable businesses on the Web, and the Web itself has some smart ways of doing business on it. But they have all been corrupted by the stock market. The rapacious way we embraced the Web at first has made the notion of looking at solid Web businesses now seem almost repugnant.
That's just a shame.
For instance, one of my favorite Web applications is the pay-for-leads business, which somehow has become reduced to the notion of affiliate marketing. It goes like this: You have something you want to sell. I have readers on my site. If my readers click to your site, you pay me 2 cents.
If my readers buy something on your site, you pay me 6 cents. That's good business. The process of qualifying buyers is one of the most expensive and time consuming parts of business. Not on the Web. It is simple and clean.
Businesses that use this model will prosper. Businesses that supply the infrastructure for this kind of transaction should be profitable from day one.
Businesses that transfer the cost of the catalog to the consumer should also be able to make money if they can somehow create an experience that is equal to or better than the hard copy version. It is easier to run a Website than a catalog. The paper, printing and mailing are very expensive. Of course, this business may not be lucrative if everyone does it because then it is not proprietary. But that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done. It just means you can't invest in it, no matter how hard Wall Street tries to make it investible.
Any Web business that can bypass a middleman wholesaler also makes sense. If you run a factory and you sell to wholesalers who mark up your product regionally you can cut that middleman out and sell right from the Web. The product is cheaper without that middleman cut. This is the business-to-business model that you keep hearing so much about. But the gains only accrue to manufacturers. Attempts to have the gains accrue to middleman exchanges have proven faulty because there is nothing proprietary about these exchanges.
They, too, turned out to be just OK ways to invest.
The Web is a wonder. It is a magnificent construct. It just turns out that most of the ways it is being used don't generate a lot of profit yet. But as an investment concept most people by now wish it would go away. So much money has been lost by dot-coms that I notice that new Web companies seem to distance themselves from that painful suffix.
Maybe that's the way it should be. Most businesses fail. Most Web businesses will fail. Twenty or 30 won't. In the coming months we will find those 20 or 30. And the rest? We will wish we never heard of them.
: It is a must to read the
Byron Wien interview. He has some excellent thoughts on the Web as well as the rest of the market.
James J. Cramer is manager of a hedge fund and co-founder of TheStreet.com. At time of publication, his fund had no positions in any stocks mentioned. His fund often buys and sells securities that are the subject of his columns, both before and after the columns are published, and the positions that his fund takes may change at any time. Under no circumstances does the information in this column represent a recommendation to buy or sell stocks. Cramer's writings provide insights into the dynamics of money management and are not a solicitation for transactions. While he cannot provide investment advice or recommendations, he invites you to comment on his column at