The Day Ahead: Everybody wants to be B2B

Is there anyone out there that doesn't want to be a business-to-business player?

As Tuesday's barrage of business-to-business (B2B) news shows, companies will do anything to run with shares of VerticalNet and Commerce One -- even one of those Baby Bells is singing the B2B tune.

On Tuesday, SBC Communications made one of the more creative moves we've seen from a Baby Bell -- it bought Sterling Commerce. The logic is clear -- SBC sells the data, so why not provide the e-commerce infrastructure as well.

SBC paid $3.9bn (£2.4bn) in cash to run with the B2B crowd. And why not? Just look at shares of Ariba, PurchasePro.com, FreeMarkets and the rest of the B2B bunch. This trend has been building for a while, but now it's getting to the point where the B2B talk could grow tired. The reason Ariba and company have soared is that there were few pure-play B2B stocks out there chasing a huge market. But now the pool is getting diluted as every company starts singing the B2B tune. And all these B2B wannabes are citing the same stats.

According to International Data Corporation (IDC), the B2B e-commerce industry is expected to grow from $200bn (£124bn) in 2000 to $2.5 trillion (£1.5 trillion) in 2004. Substitute IDC with Forrester Research or Gartner Group, and you get the same picture -- B2B will be huge.

These lofty industry projections have sparked a B2B gold rush, even though the current reality is different. According to a study by the National Association of Manufacturers, 68 percent of companies aren't doing any B2B e-commerce yet. That fact hasn't stopped the stampede, though. As we reported last week, About.com reckons it can be a B2B player. Online cattle auctioneer eMerge Interactive was a big IPO hit. B2Bstores.com had a respectable IPO outing without any sales. Meanwhile, every company is mentioning B2B in press releases. It's this year's version of "paradigm shift" -- a term that gets used so often it becomes meaningless.

Chemdex saw the B2B euphoria and what it can do to a stock -- it was targeted on the life sciences industry, a slice of the B2B market. Shares have done well, but haven't been behaving like VerticalNet shares. VerticalNet focuses on everything from waste water to the electricity industry. The market figured VerticalNet had more opportunity because it had a broad vertical reach. Chemdex, in response, changed its name to Ventro and will leverage its platform to expand into other areas. Chemdex is also likely to combat VerticalNet and the other B2B players as it expands.

Even Excite@Home and Dow Jones are looking to get a piece of the B2B pie. This week they announced plans to launch a business portal (Work.com) that will integrate Dow Jones content with Excite@Home's interactive tools. The target: vertical markets. Work.com will focus on the B2B market and slice and dice content by industry for small- and medium-sized businesses. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is: VerticalNet does it and About.com is about to do it. Excite@Home and Dow Jones figure they can cash in with their own B2B IPO. The companies, which have equal stakes in Work.com, anticipate an IPO later this year.

This theme will continue for awhile. As venture capitalist Bill Burnham notes, investment bankers are taking any company with a B2B spin public. But beware: the B2B glut lowers the quality of the sector and makes it hard for individual investors to separate the future stars from the also-rans. Here's Burnham's B2B list of questions investors should ask

  • Is a company improving sales efficiency?

  • Is it shortening cycle times?

  • Is it reducing transaction costs?

  • Is it improving scalability?

If the answer to these questions is "No," then the company is likely to flop.

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