Who Needs Colorful Little Tech Firms Anyway?

In the technology aquarium, they were the brightly colored, fancy fish that darted around and drew attention to themselves. The bigger fish swam by slowly, patiently waiting for the tank to be all theirs once again.

Well, it just about is. The majority of the little fish did themselves in, swimming too fast or eating too much. Or they drew a bit too much attention to themselves and ended up as meals for the bigger fish. Whatever the reason, the aquarium is a lot less colorful and a lot more peaceful than it was just a couple of years ago.

That’s too bad, right? Small companies, after all, provide innovation and energy, enabling the sparks of creativity to fly. They can turn on a dime and give the market what it needs. They can think outside the box and tackle problems other companies didnt even know existed. Right?

Maybe. Then again, maybe all those bright little fish did was create a distraction, drawing our attention away from what really mattered most: the ability to survive the long periods when little or no food fell into the tank.

Peace and Quiet

It’s funny, but after more than two years of down markets and shakeouts, it’s hard to remember what some of the fancy little fish looked like, or even what their names were. They went from darters to floaters so quickly we never really got a chance to know most of them, or even to figure out whether the tricks they performed were really useful.

They reminded us that it’s human nature to be drawn to the new and exciting at the expense of the familiar and steady.

Sure, the big companies enjoyed the fact that more people were paying attention to the aquarium in general. Microsoft, eBay and Dell didn’t try too hard to distance themselves from the fancy fish as long as fancy fish were in vogue.

But they couldn’t be more different. And every company that tried to be the next Microsoft or the next Amazon, only to turn out to be the next Webvan, proved that point. They weren’t even cheap imitations of the original. They weren’t chips off the old block either.

They were an example of bad chemistry, the result of ambition and free cash mixed together in dangerous amounts. They seemed important, but who can remember them now?

Add Money and Shake

It’s impossible to read the dot-com and tech dead lists — assuming the publication that maintained your favorite list isn’t dead itself — without blushing a bit; that is, when you’re not busy scratching your head in an effort to remember.

One list starts with Art.com — now resurrected under new management — and ends with Xigo, a consulting firm by the looks of it, which someone cared enough about to cache its home page for posterity. In between were DeepCanyon.com — domain name currently available — and TimeDance.com.

All of this less happened in less than two years, remember, and less than three years ago. It’s not quite like the dinosaurs outliving the meteor; after all, the Apples and HPs of the tech world are barely middle-aged.

Which Came First?

Maybe there is a bit of the chicken-and-egg syndrome going on here. Are companies that matter important because they’ve been around for a long time, or have they been around for a long time because they matter? Do companies that matter start off as bright little fish themselves?

The answer is no. This isn’t to say there’s no value in startups, that venture-backed firms haven’t provided a lot to the technology economy. But not all tech startups are darting rainbow fish. Some are just happy to swim around, minding their own business, hiding behind the underwater castle to avoid being eaten. They do not do backflips or other tricks to draw attention to themselves.

And they are essential to the ecology of the aquarium. They balance things out, keeping the cycle of life from coming to an over-the-handlebars halt. They are tomorrow’s big, meandering fish. They, too, will learn soon enough which bright little fish to eat and which ones to simply ignore.

If only it were so easy for the rest of us. No question about it — the technology world is far, far better off without all the little fish messing things up. But someone save me a seat in the front row, just in case they ever come back.

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.


  • I agree with the main point of the article, but I disagree with the writer when he groups dot-commers, eBay and Amazon, in with Microsoft and Dell. Microsoft and Dell have been around for a couple of decades. eBay and Amazon didn’t exist before 1995, so I would group them in with the colorful little tech firms. And, just because hundreds of dot-coms flamed out by foolishly spending tens of millions in unnecessary labor and advertising, doesn’t mean the industry failed. It’s just another great example of how many industries start out – lots of hype, thousands of disasters, and after considerable sweat and turmoil, dozens, if not hundreds, of successes. How many profitable and growing dot-coms need to appear before the industry stops getting slammed by the media? Are eBay, Yahoo, Amazon.com, Expedia, Hotels.com, Google, eTrade, Overture, NetFlix, and LendingTree not enough?

  • The oldest of these Big Fish is Microsoft 1975 and
    the most recent is ebay and AM azon 1995. The latter have not been around a long time and have struggled (in fact some would say are still struggling) to stay on top of the heap. Dell has superior online ordering capabilities, which isn’t saying a lot, because the other pc companies are just really bad in this area.
    Microsoft has achieved a lofty goal of having their product on every desktop, unfortunately their website suffers from a bureacratic mess that would take only the people who created it to figure out. The colorful companies serve a purpose, some even have niches and exist today as well-respected entities known for innovativeness and creativity. Certainly not suffering from lack of enthusiasm or malaise that larger companies foster. Peruse their websites and send an email for customer support, the Big Fish need to go back to square one because despite some advances they are embarrassingly inept at addressing key issues and only concerned with selling product.

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