SNOWBIRD, Utah -- The workday at
conference pretty much winds up at 12:30 p.m. -- the better to go skiing (e.g., a jaunt scheduled with Olympic gold medalist Eric Bergoust on Tuesday afternoon) or take a nap until the 6 p.m. cocktail hour.
The only problem with taking full advantage of that rest and recreation is that the nondiligent at the Snowbird ski resort miss fascinating presentations from privately held companies -- ones that look like prime candidates for making big impressions if they turn into IPOs.
Let's start with the story told by
(not to be confused with
). The company wants to be the end-all, be-all directory to legally available digital music on the Web, whether the music's encoded as an MP3 file or in another format.
The company, founded in December 1998, has a few things going for it. It has pedigree financing, starting with an early investment round that included
CEO Halsey Minor, and heavy music-industry backing.
"To our knowledge, we're the first company in history to be backed by all five major record companies," said CEO Rob Reid.
Listen.com's revenue comes from advertising, including record-industry promotion of artists and music on the site. But some day off in the future, it hopes to get big bucks from a cut of the purchase price when Listen.com users end up buying music they found through the site. And, as Reid's tour through the site demonstrated, it's a well-organized, smartly executed guide to online music.
But the most interesting part of Reid's tale was the history lesson he taught about the early days of investing in the commercialized Internet -- and the parallels one could draw to the nascent online music market. Back in 1994 and 1995, he said, Wall Street tried to figure out where the money was on the Net. Was it in software, companies like
? Or was it in content companies such as
No, Reid said, people finally realized that money was to be made in search and directory companies that organized a near-infinite amount of cheap or free content. That meant
back then -- and Listen.com now.
Well, if Yahoo!-izing the music business is such a great idea, what's to stop someone else from taking on Listen.com?
"It's not impossible," Reid said. But he said that, as with Yahoo!, competitors are intimidated by what's required to catch up -- listening to music and adding entries to a database one by one. "There's a high perceptive barrier to entry when human labor is involved," he said.
Lycos Telling Lies?
COO Ted Philip make the "Huh?!" comment of the day Tuesday when he asserted that
didn't have a multibrand strategy until January, when it announced it was buying
and all the others acquired by AOL? Didn't they count for anything?
Philip likely got caught up in the excitement of the moment as he talked about Lycos' success with its own multibrand strategy -- building traffic to its big Lycos,
sites, then funneling traffic to new sites that it adds to the family. In January, for instance, traffic at
, two sites Lycos acquired in December, rose 36% and 40%, respectively, from December.
Meanwhile, Philip couldn't help commenting that Lycos has been able to keep its sales and marketing expenses under control -- for example, exchanging promotional activity, not paying cash, to have model
in a TV ad. "We've been able to do more with less," he said.
On Tuesday, Lycos closed up 2 1/8, or 3.1%, to 67 1/8. The stock was already higher before Philip's presentation began, thanks to a Web software deal that the company announced with
before the market opened.
Figuring Out Online Retailing
If you had any doubts that online retailing is a fiendishly complex business for anyone involved, Tuesday's panel discussion of Internet retailers would have laid that to rest.
talked about what their companies did well, or were about to do well, but the difficulties they faced peeked through.
For online affiliates of off-line retailers, working with the parent company seems to be the hot button. "Like many of our relationships with our parents, it's very mixed and complex," said Dan Nordstrom, president and CEO of
. Well, at least he didn't have to sign the parent-child equivalent of a prenuptial agreement, which is what BlueLight.com, a venture of Kmart and
Softbank Venture Capital
, seemingly had to do. BlueLight.com CEO Mark Goldstein said it took three or four months to create a business model that worked, and BlueLight.com and Kmart ended up writing a 4-inch thick document detailing how BlueLight.com would be operating with Kmart.
The other big challenge for the retailers, they said, was the need to constantly update software to keep the shopping experience on the cutting edge. Amazon.com President Joe Galli referred to his company as a software factory, while Nordstrom said that his firm was half retailer, half software-development company.
But Tony Surtees, general manager of Yahoo!'s commerce group, cautioned against breaking down one's business like that. "Our biggest concern is adding value in a real sense by making ourselves more relevant to users and merchants," he said. "The total customer experience can't be split into pieces ... It's like the weakest link."