Today, it seems perfectly obvious that building an internet business to sell pet food to customers where shipping and logistic costs (let alone advertising costs, etc.) wiped out any chance of profitability was an idea doomed to fail.
But, was it obvious at the time? While some folks will claim they knew all along, the market evidence suggests that most people had no clue: after all, the company raised over $110M in capital from Hummer Winblad, Comcast, Amazon.com, and others. It went on to successfully IPO in 2000 and at one point employed over 300 people. If it was such a terrible idea, it seems that it took quite a while for people to catch on.
This isn’t to specifically pick on Pets.com – quite the opposite: when you work in technology, there is oftentimes so much change and uncertainty around the future that its not obvious that the “emperor has no clothes” until its too late, oftentimes driven by entrepreneurs, career-seekers, and investors willing to pile on to make sure that they “get in on the action before its too late.”
And therein lies a very interesting question: what are the ideas/companies that have generated a ton of traction today which will become “duh, stupid” Pets.com ideas of tomorrow?
Examples of companies that flew high once and “obviously” crashed afterwards (most of the Dot Com bubble companies, many of the Cleantech bubble companies, some prominent consumer internet companies, etc) suggest that ignoring economic realities is a common refrain. Many of the failed Dot Com bubble companies and many of the challenged consumer internet companies relied primarily on drawing eyeballs to their websites/apps without figuring out how to make money enough on them to recoup their costs of marketing & advertising. The cleantech companies, similarly, gambled wrongly on government support and on their ability to make their technologies competitive with conventional systems.
But, the danger of generalizing from this type of thinking is that are plenty of examples of huge companies which succeeded despite bleak economic pictures in the early days. Amazon.com is a particularly noteworthy company that aimed to grow first before worrying about profitability (something it continues to do in a number of new businesses), not generating profit until late 2001, 7 years after founding, and over 4 years after it went public. Considering the company is worth over $100B today, compared with roughly $400M when it went public, it would seem blindly paying attention to the immediate economic picture would’ve cheated you out of a very impressive investment.
The truth is that I don’t have a good answer to this question. Studying what led to the failure of past startup models can be very informative in terms of how to think about other businesses, but the truth is that we aren’t likely to know until it hits us. Who knows, maybe in a few years “Big Data” or “Mobile advertising’ might all be revealed to have been terrible businesses…?
I would love to hear any thoughts on the subject in the comments below.