Dot-gone humor hits the toilet

Dot-com failures take a hit as souvenirs, including toilet paper, immortalize the rise and fall of the industry.
Written by Greg Sandoval, Contributor
Almost everyone has heard of the dot-com deadpool, but what about the dot-com cesspool?

Two entrepreneurs have created a line of novelty toilet paper printed to look like ticker tape spewing the stock prices of struggling dot-coms. Publicly traded companies such as Yahoo, Amazon.com and BroadVision are among the stocks that landed on the company's "roll of shame". All three have plummeted from their all-time highs.

"We picked out some real dogs," said John Zappa, a co-creator of the toilet paper.

The demand for memorabilia of once haughty, now humbled Internet companies is becoming a cottage industry at a time when the Nasdaq Stock Market is submerged below 2,000.

Stock certificates from struggling or failed Web companies are selling for far more than their paper value--more than US$100 for certificates from the now-defunct Webvan and the under-the-weather Drkoop.com, whose stock trades around US$0.11.

T-shirts, jackets, cup holders and mouse pads bearing the logos of one-time household names such as eToys and Kozmo are also fetching big money on eBay. The New Economy's fall is happening as fast as its rise, and people seem to want souvenirs before the moment is completely gone.

"Buyers usually fall into two categories: those who lost money investing and who can laugh at themselves, or someone who knows somebody who lost and buys the toilet paper to rub their nose in it," said Zappa, who playfully calls his rolls of US$9.95 toilet paper "Venture Crapital". He also is toying with such marketing slogans as "No hype and all wipe" and, somehow capturing the je ne sais quoi of the Internet age: "Let's potty like it's 1999."

Demand for the toilet paper is coming from surprising places, Zappa said. Someone at investment bank Morgan Stanley, which has taken its hits on Internet investments, ordered 24 rolls to hand out to clients as gifts.

The downturn also created a voracious market for Web sites about the sluggish economy and its impact. They range from such gossipy sites as the popular F***edCompany, which gleefully takes pot shots at the suddenly downsized, to those with a more serious bent, such as Startupfailures.com. The latter site, created by someone who has two failures under his belt, caters to those who also have failed in their start-up ventures.

Keeping pace with the schadenfreude among Old Economy--and suddenly reformed New Economy--types who say they always knew it couldn't last, the Internet in general has become a favorite scapegoat, the subject of stifled giggles and rolled eyes.

These days, anything serious seems to be out of place. The Wall Street Journal went so far as to take a poll--and to publish two columns' worth of material--as to whether the paper should change the name of a column from "Boom Town" to something more, er, appropriate, such as "Gloom Town" or "Ka-Boom Town".

But as the hearty laughs echo from Boston to Seattle, some dot-com defenders have emerged, calling the ridicule gratuitous and unfair. Meanwhile, at least one analyst said the run on Internet memorabilia may be a sign of sentimentality.

Companies spent millions cozying up to the public, and many people may have grown attached, Gomez analyst Alan Alper said.

"A lot of the Internet boom was based on hopeful and wishful thinking," Alper said. "A lot of the people involved wanted to help build castles in the sky, and there were also a lot who wanted to live there."

Zappa and Wentz got the idea for the toilet paper after working for Dell Computer, which is not one of the companies on the roll. Zappa said the two bonded over their common disbelief of the Internet craze going on around them.

The pair say they stood out from their peers, who were making a killing by investing in dot-com stocks.

"Chris and I were the lepers of the village at Dell because all our co-workers wanted was to hear how great they were for buying Amazon and Priceline," Zappa said. "They used to say we didn't know what we were talking about. The toilet paper was a kind of a 'Revenge of the Nerds' thing."

Through their business, Rothwell-Gornt, which develops and markets intellectual property, Zappa and Wentz have sold more than 300 rolls and are scurrying to fill 2,500 orders. They say they are negotiating deals with national retail chains that specialize in novelty gifts.

Although the New York Post called the duo "pessimists", Zappa, who claims the late musician and social commentator Frank Zappa as a second cousin, says the toilet paper is all in good fun.

"It's not my intention to hurt anybody, but I'm a realist," Zappa said. "It was an insult to my intelligence to see those companies bid up to billion-dollar valuations without any profits. It was only natural that they would go out of business."

Editorial standards