Sprawling red carpet. Stage lights ablaze. Glitterati in wingtips.
Welcome to the cerebral Oscars. Or more precisely, the first annual e-Commerce Awards hosted by academia’s own 21st Century talent scout: the Sloan School of Management at MIT.
The Web commerce awards ceremony — an exercise in start-up sorcery itself — was born from blueprints of the venerable Academy Awards but quickly matured into a promising event all its own. And though MIT valiantly emulated the grandeur and distinction of the Oscars, the free Microsoft swag, expo-inspired nametags, and panel discussion about “disintermediation” inevitably gave them away.
Perhaps most striking, however, was the event’s historical perspective: The Oscars debuted in 1929, roughly three decades after the first motion picture played before a live audience. MIT’s awards kicked off less than four years after Amazon.com sold its first book on the Web. Considering that slapdash timeline, the 1999 e-commerce awards served as more of a guidepost for pedestrian businesses looking to expand their strategies and objectives on the Web than a tooth-and-nail competition between online competitors.
“The real challenge is to get the broader business world to learn about (Web commerce),” says head organizer and MIT student Rob Bailey. “We tried to create an event so that when companies start to transform themselves for e-commerce, they can have some best practices to turn to.”
A Startup by Design
When Bailey first proposed the idea of awarding e-commerce citations, the MIT administration told him he was out of his mind. “They were probably right,” he said. Three months, 40 student volunteers, and countless pots of coffee later, that rickety notion matured into an event that one award winner called “upscale, classy, and professional.”
“We designed ourselves like a startup” Bailey said. “We sold the product while it was still being defined and developed.”
Within one semester, Bailey and his team secured sponsorships from Lycos, Red Herring, and Scient, and signed on judges such as E*Trade founder Bill Porter, Firefly Network founder Patty Maes, and CityAuction CEO Andy Rebele. The end product — a two-hour ceremony held on Tuesday, May 11, and broadcast live online — was a testament to the power of a good idea.
Though still waddling through its infant stage, MIT’s e-commerce awards demonstrate the speed and dexterity of online business — only a toddler itself.
“E-commerce went through a period in which each and every operation was trying to think things through from the basics because there really weren’t a lot of models,” says Sloan Dean Richard Schmalensee. “Now the outlines of workable models are starting to emerge. The development of principles are starting to appear.”
The diverse winners of MIT’s first-ever e-commerce awards best demonstrate the speed and scope of e-commerce today, perhaps. Winner of the Social Responsibility Award, Impact Online has transplanted social service onto the Web. A service for “non-profits who are non-profits on purpose,” Impact began as a way to show charitable groups how to use the Web, says Chief Imagination Officer Greg Baldwin. Impact has matched more than 30,000 volunteers with about 4,000 non-profit organizations.
Net Perceptions, winner of the Technology Innovator award, was founded on a similar premise but with a different business objective. More than 100 top e-commerce sites use Net Perceptions’ technology for one-to-one marketing, says founder John Riddell. Net Perceptions assesses the customer, chooses an appropriate product, and makes its recommendation all in one second. Now that’s a fast company!
Leaders of the New School
In an effort to teach what they preach, Sloan will launch a new electronic commerce and marketing education program this September. The utility and intent of its curriculum, however, may fade even before its first graduates launch their pioneer empires. “Will this kind of track be around in 20 years? Probably not,” says Schmalensee. “The telephone has affected marketing and everything else about business, but we don’t offer a concentration in the phone. In 20 years, there won’t be a concentration in e-commerce. It’ll just be a tool that everybody uses.”
In a business environment where cutting-edge ideas become obsolete over the course of a long weekend, MIT is experimenting with its curriculum in an effort to stand apart from the pack.
“MIT has been on the leading edge of thinking in management and technology for generations,” says Chris Lochhead, Scient’s chief marketing officer. “The fact that MIT is celebrating success in e-business and has a track studying it shows that they get it. E-business is the future. E-business is the business.”
Here are the MIT e-Commerce Award categories, winners, and finalists.
Web Transformation Award
For the most impressive transformation of an existing company into a Web-based business
Winner: Egghead.com , a software retailer that boarded up its physical stores and now exists purely online.
For the best reinvention of an existing industry with e-commerce
Winner: MP3.com, the leading online source of digital music has published more than 36,000 songs from nearly 9,000 artists so far.
For the best servicing of international customers
Winner: Dell Computer, a leading computer manufacturer that has customized its online stores in 21 different languages. Customers in 44 countries can review, configure, price, order, and track computers.
Technology Innovator Award
For the most promising technology
Winner: Net Perceptions, a technology company that makes real-time recommendations for e-commerce clients.
Social Responsibility Award
Best use of e-commerce for social responsibility
Winner: Impact Online, an innovative link between non-profits agencies and volunteers.
Rookie of the Year Award
For the most promising “up-and-coming” company
Winner: Akamai, an Internet content distribution service that speeds up delivery of Web pages and eliminates congestion on the Web.
For more information about the MIT Sloan e-Commerce Awards or to view the Webcast of the event, visit the Web.