The Internet industry turned out in its full Gatsby-esque form this week. Atop a windy bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, wealth, glitter, self-infatuation and self-doubt were on display in quantities worthy of the fictional social pretender.
Five hundred top moguls of commercial cyberspace gathered at a resort there for Internet Summit 99. They golfed, they ate, they schmoozed, they argued over how long their industry's ascent could last, they went away voicing hints of tragedy for the future (though only for the other guy, in general).
"This is a great time for flowers to bloom," said Amazon.com chief executive Jeff Bezos. "Ninety percent of them are going to get cut down."
This was a gathering for the Internet "pure play" crowd, people whose business exists in the electronic realm only. People from traditional companies did not in general get invited, but some who did got major notice. Indeed, the speaker who stirred the biggest buzz was David Pottruck, co-chief executive of the Charles Schwab Corp. brokerage.
He struck a chord with his audience by saying companies that learn how to seamlessly blend virtual and physical assets will emerge as big winners in what he called the new "clicks and mortar" economy.
The need to pay a dollop of respect to traditional companies that earn real profits was one of the prevailing winds at the Ritz-Carlton resort. Another was angst over what many in attendance see as an excess of investment capital chasing mediocre Internet ideas, raising questions about what the Internet economy might look like if and when the investment river dries up.
An electronic poll at the gathering, sponsored by two investment bankers and Industry Standard magazine, suggested that most executives in attendance believe the Internet economy is a speculative bubble, with worrisome consequences if and when it ends.
Still, they retained feelings for the Internet that were a lot like first love: intense, risky, irrational.
At one point, a skinny young entrepreneur named Bill Nguyen sat on the veranda of the Ritz-Carlton on Tuesday. With his back to the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a paraglider flying a few dozen yards behind him, he faced two older venture capitalists and talked about his plan to take his Onebox.com messaging service to the masses.
Nguyen seemed to spend little time pondering the symbolism of the daredevils flying over cliffs; he was focused on making personal contacts to help him get his new World Wide Web-based service, Onebox.com, off the ground.
When he arrived Saturday, a woman from a company that wants to partner with Onebox.com cornered Nguyen in the mahogany-walled hotel library lounge and berated him for not returning her calls. After teasing him for traveling without luggage and using the Net to order Gap clothes that he wears once and then gives away to hotel concierges, she chastised him for not working with her.
Nguyen gave no ground: "My guys need focus," he said, explaining that he had chosen a few partners from among the Web's top 10 sites to integrate his messaging service. Nguyen had already picked most of his partners, but he still came to the Ritz because, like others, he was on the prowl for more money, ideas and relationships to plug his Web business in more deeply.
"It cemented my relationships and started a lot of new ones," Nguyen said after the conference ended yesterday.
Because online businesses--each one click away from the other--are more interdependent than traditional businesses, industry networking is considered mission-critical for every Internet company--in particular, networking with offline partners.
Said iVillage.com founder Candice Carpenter: "We in the online world now value land-based businesses more," as illustrated by increased spending by iVillage and other Web sites for offline advertising. She recounted the actions of another Internet executive who left a work-with-me-or-else voice-mail message for a resistant corporate chieftain as the kind of behavior Internet companies need to stop.
"I think online companies are growing up and getting better at delivering value," she added.
Priceline.com chief executive Jay Walker said helping the Internet industry find a path to profits was the goal. "This is about the need to build relationships between companies and help give the Internet business models traction," Walker said as he prowled an outdoor terrace.
How to get traction--meaning profits--was something few could agree on. Many well-known industry figures, including Bezos, venture capitalist John Doerr and Yahoo chief executive Tim Koogle, were openly skeptical of the sell-at-or-below-cost strategy, and also the free-PC model of giving away computers to create an audience for advertisers.
Walker was singled out by other Net executives as an innovator whose model they admire for its cleverness but question for its economics. In a kind of reverse auction, Priceline.com invites consumers to offer the price they are willing to pay for an airline seat or hotel room, then tries to match them with a company willing to sell at that price.
Much as he does online, Walker tried to invert the rules of a live charity auction held beside the hotel pool Sunday, but the auctioneer, eBay chief executive Meg Whitman, wouldn't let him. As two men engaged in heated bidding for the right to have dinner with Walker, the Priceline.com founder marched across the pool deck and told one to stop bidding at $5,000, let the other win and donate the money to charity.
"It was silly," Walker said afterward. "For $5,000 I am happy to have dinner with both of them."
That was the kind of on-the-fly negotiation Internet entrepreneurs are famous for and that rarely happens in the hierarchical, bureaucratic world of corporate America. That's one reason conference organizers said they winnowed the guest list and placed many traditional retailers among the list of 1,200 people they had to turn away: It was to let the Internet's like minds interact directly.
"The old world is lazy," Walker said in a speech centered on the idea that the "ecosystem" spawned by the global computer network is as organic as the human mind. "They want to copy--to take old ideas and put them in a new environment. We spend our time thinking about new business models."
Leslie Walker's e-mail address is email@example.com.