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Adaptation nation

Which dotcoms will survive the shakeout? Our third visit finds SimplyDone - formerly Handshake - repositioned and hanging on.

By Shelley Donald Coolidge Special correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 27, 2000



LOS ANGELES

Barely a dotcom.

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That's the latest from the Internet start-up the Monitor began following a year ago.

The company, then called Handshake.com, was formed by four guys in their 20s eager to make it big at a time when dotcoms were Wall Street's golden child.

When it debuted on the Web last year, Handshake's concept was to revolutionize the way consumers buy services.

Times have changed. So has our dotcom.

Los Angeles-based SimplyDone Business Solutions, as it's now known, still relies on the Web for its success. It maintains a public presence online. But its central purpose is no longer serving everyday consumers there. It's all about selling e-commerce software to the service industry - everyone from caterers to pet groomers.

Businesses use the technology on their own Web sites to allow customers to log on and schedule appointments.

No doubt, for the company to still exist at a time when plenty of Internet entrepreneurs have been shown the door is a major accomplishment.

The fact that SimplyDone, at least for now, is a business-to-business dotcom says a lot about the state of Internet start-ups.

"Just because I'm in the dotcom world doesn't mean I ever believed those stock valuations were really sustainable," says Michael Barton,

SimplyDone's chief executive officer, who joined the company earlier this year. "It was a dream phase that had to come to an end at some point."

"The market today is more rational and more reasonable and one that is grounded in good business practice," he says.

Wall Street's change of heart toward Internet start-ups was no doubt a factor in SimplyDone's revamped business strategy. When the company first launched, the idea was to connect consumers to local merchants. Need a caterer anywhere in the US? Fill out an online request form, watch the bids roll in, and schedule your service. The site had almost 30 service categories to choose from.

The problem was that it took a lot of customers (at least 100,000 by some industry estimates) to generate any revenue. And building up that kind of traffic can take years - not to mention big bucks.

Yet while the original business struggled, the company learned a lot about how people use the Internet. It also discovered that the average service merchant didn't know much about technology or how to profit from the Web.

So in June, SimplyDone Business Solutions was born. It quickly started peddling its software to merchants. The company also sells its technical and marketing expertise.

"We saw this opportunity as almost an offshoot of what we were doing before," Barton says. "The real reason we changed the business model was speed to profitability."

While the consumer dotcom site (www.simplydone.com) is still on the Web, "it is not even relevant to our business now," Barton says.

Since the change, the company has scaled down its marketing, recruiting, and business-development departments and ramped up sales and product development. So far, SimplyDone has landed Maid Brigade as a client. But it declined to specify sales projections or total number of clients to date.

It has already acquired one technology company, and has partnered with a half a dozen others. SimplyDone anticipates "positive cash flow" by the middle to end of next year. So far, it has been able to survive without a third round of financing.

The dream of going public and cashing in as an IPO, however, has become "one of a string of options," rather than the goal the company was originally driving toward.