The Great ‘Dot-Com Doom Auction’ Riddle

The auction began innocently enough. The owner of F**, one of the earliest and, truth be told, most entertaining chroniclers of the dot-com shakeout, reportedly woke up feeling a tad bored with his endeavor.

So Philip Kaplan surfed over to eBay and put his company on the block. Apparently feeling bored as well as lucky, he set an opening bid of $1 (US$). Then, all hell broke loose.

By the end of the first day, a slew of bids had tumbled in. Those in the $10 million range were later thrown out, but an offer of a cool $3 million appeared legitimate.

Then, just as quickly as it began, the auction was over. Had Kaplan changed his mind? Maybe. It is amazing how a string of zeros at the end of a price can zap boredom. But wait — now there’s a note on the site instructing interested buyers to contact Kaplan directly. The plot thickens.

For the Record

I tried to ask Kaplan about the situation, but he hasn’t answered e-mails seeking comment. Chances are good that he’s been deluged with e-mails, given the avalanche of publicity spurred by the eBay posting.

Absent his input, I’m left with my own cynical inclinations. Could Kaplan have known that his site would draw so much attention on eBay? Maybe not. But even before the auction, his page was the focus of a lot of media attention — mostly reviews along the lines of “How cool is this?”

Rolling Stone named F** a “hot Web site” in its annual guide to the now and happening.

And the site is cool. The black background that would otherwise be a sure-fire mark of amateurism fits. And the tone of the entire page strikes just the right note between harsh and light.

Worth a Buck?

So, is it possible Kaplan thought he would get a dollar for his site? Not by a long shot, since he set a reserve price of $500,000 and rode the wave of publicity that broke long before the auction. F** provides the kind of insider information an analyst might not get from management, and Kaplan knows it. The page includes a quote from a Forrester Research analyst who claims he always checks the site before he issues an opinion.

Also, advertisers have been paying for space on the page. Kaplan mockingly remarks in one of many notes scattered around the site that the money is “rolling in” from banner ads. I think that is more of a dig at the fraction-of-a-penny nature of the banner ad world than an estimate of true financial value.

Smart Move?

Kaplan is no dummy. F** oozes the kind of laid-back smarts that come from confidence. For example, he knows his site is just a hobby, so he doesn’t stress when members don’t get their “points” for nominating f**ked companies — he just writes a note coyly promising to restore them.

So the question now is, what did he know and when did he know it? If, as an eBay spokesman said, Kaplan was simply overwhelmed by the response to the auction, fine. But I can’t help thinking that this was no accident, no little misstep on his part.

Kaplan notes on his site that traffic to the page is up 120 percent during the week that has elapsed since his flirtation with auction. Is this a coincidence, or what?

Motivation Unclear

Did Kaplan engineer a plan to avoid paying eBay’s fee? That seems equally unlikely. But somewhere in between, I would bet, lies the truth.

Whatever Kaplan’s ultimate purpose, I’m sure eBay didn’t mind getting a few hundred thousand dollars worth of free publicity out of the deal, too. But I’m equally sure that if Kaplan hadn’t taken the eBay route, the price for his site would never have risen so high.

What does it all mean? For a few brief shining hours, a dot-com with an obscene name that tells people which Internet companies are going to fold topped a Honus Wagner baseball card on the value scale.

But only for a while. The owner of the baseball card sold his treasure — he knew a good deal when he saw one. The purveyor of the Web site, though — he had second thoughts. My guess is that he was briefly blinded by the dollar signs dancing in front of his eyes.

Will F** command a sale price of $3 million, $4 million or more? Possibly. But my advice to Kaplan is to sell quickly.

It won’t be long before other people become as bored by his site as he was on that fateful morning.

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