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Internet Commerce Focus of Workshop

By Kevin R. Lang

In conjunction with MIT's annual $50K Entrepreneurship Competition, Fidelity Investments sponsored a Web-Based Commerce Workshop Monday night in the Media Lab's Bartos Theater.

Speakers at the event included Mr. Paul Ciriello, President of Fidelity Interactive Company. Ciriello discussed his involvement in expanding Fidelity's share of the on-line brokerage market.

The panel also included Ms. Lee Dingle, Vice President of Interactive Solutions for Cambridge Technology Partners. Dingle's work involves coordinating the technical, creative, and business aspects of internet commerce.

The third speaker, Mr. Omar Khudari, was co-founder of Papyrus Design Group, a game company eventually acquired by Sierra On-Line. Khudari is a private investor specializing in web-based startups.

The panel's general consensus seemed to be that the market for internet commerce is almost completely open at this early stage. Ciriello noted that Fidelity conducted only seven percent of its business via the web a little over a year ago, compared to 70 percent today.

However, the openness that makes the web consumer-friendly can also hurt the companies involved. The web "opens up choice for consumers that is hard to replicate in any other market," Ciriello said. Where a consumer in a retail store has limited choice, consumers on the Internet have endless options.

Many participants in the workshop expressed interest in strategies for starting and expanding web commerce for smaller businesses. Khudari said that small companies often drown on the internet when surrounded by larger corporations. He added that the most successful companies are often those which stand out most.

According to the panel members, establishing an on-line brand is also key to internet commerce. Dingle said that the open market of the web allows new companies to establish web presence, and therefore build their brand, before larger companies. However, most Internet consumers are in the younger demographics, and brand names sometimes have less weight than with older markets.

When asked how a startup can best establish an on-line brand, Khudari cited public relations as key.

Dingle added that word-of-mouth over the web is essential to creating interest in a brand.

Despite the current wave of internet startups, the panel members agreed that some businesses are better off in a traditional format. "For a lot of reasons there are businesses that wouldn't make sense on the web," Khudaris said. "They have a great advantage in their bricks and mortar business that is not going to translate on-line."

"Instant international" poses an additional difficulty in web-based commerce, Dingle said. Since companies cannot selectively market their products, new international business could effectively overwhelm a startup.

Despite the ever-increasing prominence of web advertising, the panel members agreed that commerce is the best revenue generator on the web. Khudari indicated that the financial community does not currently favor companies that rely solely on advertising for revenues.