Trick or Treat at Webvan HQ

It’s been three months since Webvan delivered its last order. But still the dead dot-com keeps haunting e-commerce, even as its casket is lowered into the ground.

The latest chapter in the Webvan haunting is the two-day going, going, gone auction of what’s left of its headquarters. Even though it’s been broken up into tiny pieces, what used to be Webvan is still giving e-commerce a black eye.

The asset auction, broadcast live on the Web, is mostly about technology. For one solid two-hour block Tuesday, nothing but servers and storage units came up for bid. All sold for steep discounts on the original price, of course.

And even those basic sales have ramifications for the technology sector. Who wants to buy a new Sun storage unit for full price when Webvan has a “barely used” model — the equivalent of the car only driven by an old lady to church on Sunday — for a fraction of the price?

Bag of Goodies

But it’s the usual spending-spree stuff, the over-the-top amenities, that really makes Webvan’s exit so ugly.

Naturally, the press has grabbed onto the fact that all Webvan office workers sat on Aeron chairs and whiled away the hours playing Ping-Pong on a regulation table or shooting hoops at the adjustable basket.

The Webvan story is tailor-made as the ultimate rags-to-riches-to-nothing saga that is a metaphor for the dot-com shakeout itself.

It’s not that simple, of course, but most people don’t want to hear that. It’s just too simple to see US$1,200 chairs and time-wasting games as proof that it’s way too easy to spend money when it isn’t yours — and to see a bankrupt company as proof that it was all for nothing.

Graveyard Walk

The reality is somewhere in the middle, of course, and a lot more complex.

Webvan, by virtue of its massive hauls of venture capital and stock market money and its high-profile expansion plans, has become the poster child of dot-com excess.

And now it’s being taken apart. Piece by piece. By the time all is said and done, the dismantling of Webvan may take as long as its useful life as a home grocer.

There have been auctions of various sizes and successes for months now. The resolution of the bankruptcy case will take months more to sort itself out. Someday there will be a conclusion, but even then, the ghosts of Webvan will still be fluttering around.

They will haunt every non-brick-and-mortar grocery delivery business plan ever put together. And many a non-grocery Web business plan as well.

Friendly Ghosts

But not all the haunting will be bad. Some Webvan ghosts will be amicable.

Its delivery trucks will rumble down the urban streets where Webvan once toiled, the logo painted over with the local fish market’s name. Its servers will power mom-and-pop Web startups or sit in storage until the next big thing comes along.

A friendly but fierce game of Ping-Pong will be played on Webvan’s old table. The next or the current Shaq will hone his free-throw skills on the company basketball hoop. And hundreds of tired office workers will lean back and feel refreshed in their high-end chairs.

Webvan isn’t gone. Not now and not after the last notebook computer is sold to the highest bidder. It will always be around. And that’s OK, just as long as we don’t forget that it was only one company at one time.

To make it any more than that would be downright scary.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


1 Comment

  • Tell Your Story about Webvan

    We are a group of MBA students at the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, and are working on developing a case study of Webvan.

    Thus, we are interested in gathering as many different perspectives on the story of Webvan as possible. We have set up a website to survey former Webvan employees, investors, customers and clients to gain their perspectives.

    You can visit this survey by going to:

    http://echo.gmu.edu/surveys/contribute.php?survey=webvan.

    Thank you so much in advance!

    Suzanne Lorenzen

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