Anniversary Special #20YearChallenge: The Dotcom Bust
MW was launched at a time when a feverish new phenomenon called the `dotcom’ boom swept across India’s business cities with monomaniacal energy
MW was launched at a time when a feverish new phenomenon called the `dotcom’ boom swept across India’s business cities with monomaniacal energy. The modest success of the likes of ebay and Amazon of the late 1990s had generated a mysterious frenzy among tech investors to set up similar companies in the belief that somehow the whole world would move their lives online overnight. Suddenly everyone and his uncle were setting up what was called dotcoms. Even our company was christened MW dotcom, as in MW.com India Pvt Ltd. This frenzied euphoria was captured in our cover story in May 2000 under the title of ‘Is There Anyone Not Setting up a Dotcom’ with a picture of an orangutan on a PC on the cover. The inevitable bust came a few months later taking down most of the companies, including everyone we wrote about in the story barring just one.
Excerpted from MW May 2000
This country has about 1 million internet subscribers, perhaps 3 million net-enabled users in all. If they were all in Bombay, that isn’t even every filth person. And yet, every billboard in Bombay is taken by a dotcom. India this, Info that, My Search Engine, Your Personal Email, Woman Power, Man Power, Kiddie Power…it boggles the mind. Forget the information on the net, there is an overload taking place on the streets itself. The magazines the boys at the signals push at me, the newspaper my vada pav comes wrapped in; they are all full of this alone. All the signs point the way to the internet and the World Wide Web, the brand new (at least in India) virtual world where lives and fortunes will be remade.
I walk up the stairs of an increasingly ramshackle building to the only office that is working on this public holiday, the enormously successful contest site hungama.com. Neeraj Roy, Starter-up and MD, leads me to a table. Neeraj is an affable man, a golfer who hasn’t stepped on the links in, “oh, I don’t know how long.” He speaks easily of his transition from a background in hotel sales for the Taj group, and investment banking in Prime Securities, But the measured cadences speak of a script that has been learned over the past few months. He is emphatic that he is not a gambler. He worked out the revenue models, did the cashflow analyses. He is, after all, a professional. But he took a tremendous risk, quitting a career that was already laid on, to go chasing after an entrepreneurial dream. Has it worked out, I ask him. That depends, he grins. How do you define success in the field? How indeed. Jeff Bezos of Amazon loses money on every single thing he sells, yet his stock is worth billions. Sabeer Bhatia sold Hotmail for millions of dollars, but someone else now owns his company. Neeraj still owns his company, has no problem raising money for future expansion, yet doesn’t know whether he will still be involved in his company in another two years time. Will his company weather the coming storm, will it be able to expand, stay hip?
Sometime later that week, I’m on a flight to Delhi, to meet some more dotcommers. I look around to spot a friend who had said she may be on the same flight, on her way to interview some potential new recruits for her dotcom, a venture I hadn’t heard about till the previous evening. This is a pretty good friend. While I peer about, I hear the conversation behind me. Two spectacled NIIT specimens animatedly discuss their heroes. “What a plan he had, boss.” “Obviously. Look at the house he made in New York.” “Really? Already made. Kya line hai, bhai, this internet. Hardly any personal investment, and look at the returns.” A pause. “Is the house beautiful?” “Worth fifty million dollars. If not more.” I look around then, for I want to know who this man is, and how he managed to buy Buckingham Palace and take it to New York, but it isn’t that time. Or the place, for that matter. The fever-stricken can transmit their contagion quickly in the recycled air o a plane. As I leave Palam airport, all the nameboards being held up are for dotcommers. My fantasising friends are being met. I push my own cart out.