Tuesday, February 03, 2009

INTERNET: What Might Have Been

Reading Stephen Grant's column on Stan Lee Media from last week jogged memories of a time when I might have cashed in on the dot com bubble of the early 21st century. I actually started thinking about the 'missed' opportunity when Bruce Young gave me a 'catch-up' phone call on the weekend. Guess it takes two kicks to the butt to get me off it and to the keyboard.

Back at the turn of the century, part of my money was coming from programming for a bunch of food brokers. Bruce Young and Lindsay Weatherdon, chiefly. I was also their IT guy. We also teamed up in an ultimately futile attempt to break into the monopoly that ran the surveying business for newspapers in Canada. Being an old newspaperman with more than a few connections into the weekly newspaper business all over the province of Ontario, I thought we had a shot at cutting into the pie. Silly fool, me. Waste of time and money. But, I digress.

Everybody was looking for the next BIG INTERNET IDEA. Amazon was dominating every would-be entrepreneur's dreams. How to move bricks-and-mortar type ideas onto the internet and get rich by selling on a grander scale from some warehouse depot. Lindsay, especially, was hot to trot. He wanted to get into the internet grocery business.

The idea had been tried and failed. It had also worked on a limited basis in a couple of places. Lindsay thought, with some justification, that it was more a case of computer geeks (like me) not KNOWING the food business, than anything else stopping the idea from flourishing. He spent more than a few days badgering me about the idea. He'd even talked in vague terms with suppliers to see whether they would come on board. Remember, he was in the brokerage business. His company was the middleman between manufacturers and the stores themselves. Or more precisely, the chain purchasing agents. He pictured GrocersByNet as the Amazon equivalent for the food industry.

More than that, he envisioned starting GrocersByNet, spending a few months operating it, and then selling it for zillions of dollars to Amazon, Loblaws or somesuch other deep-pocketed company. I'm not sure which tropical beach he envisioned buying and then living by, but he dreamed big. And he invited me along for the ride. He even suggested GAzillions of dollars might be at stake.

I demurred. I thought then, and I think now, groceries over the internet was a bad idea. Forget fresh produce and meat, I didn't think even staples made it a good idea. My thinking was that people REALLY, REALLY want to have choices. I go into the store wanting cereal. At the moment I arrive, I don't know whether it will be Cheerio's or Special K. It's not 'til I'm in front of the arrayed colourful boxes that I make up my mind. And sometimes, I try that something new. Most times I regret it. There was a horrible Bran Flakes purchase decision that still causes turmoil on my insides, but you know what I mean. I want to see and touch what food I buy. That's just me. But I don't think I'm in the minority that way.

What I missed, according to Lindsay, was the fact HE didn't believe it would be successful either. I should be looking at the BIG PICTURE. Start the business, sell out and don't give a damn as to whether the idea actually works or not. We weren't going INTO the grocery business. We were going into the WEBSITE sale business! Still didn't make the idea palatable.

We never did move past the lunchroom table discussion level of looking into it. Or rather I never looked into it much further. The few grocery sites on the internet managed to shrivel into a few decent very niche sites. Most of the sites dealt with a small clientele in a small area. Usually well-heeled areas with a higher-than-normal concentration of computer geeks willing to pay extra not to get dressed and trod up and down food store aisles.

And of course, the dot-com boom went bust about seven years ago. We MIGHT have been able to sell out in time, profiting handsomely. Or we might have been stuck with the useless bricks and mortar warehouse(s) for our useless website and all have been sent to debtor's prison (Do they still have them?). We'll never know, cuz I wouldn't do the programming.

Nowadays, having become a very house-bound kind of guy, I sort of wish I HAD pursued the idea and that it had become a success ... for me or for the eventual owners. There are times when I do NOT like getting dressed up and heading out to the 24-hour A&P in the wee hours of the morning for a bit of crowd-free, no-lineup queue shopping. That time is right about now, what with tonight's expected low of minus-20, or thereabouts. Wouldn't it be nice if I could just log into the store's 'net site, click here and there and have the groceries sometime tomorrow afternoon?

Oh well. We all have to live with our decisions, happily or unhappily.

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