Dottie Downturn's trauma

Nostalgia for the glory years, or post-dot-com downturn disorder? Whatever the case, Salon's new-economy etiquette arbiter clearly needs help.

Published September 21, 2000 7:12PM (EDT)

Dear Dottie Downturn,

I read with glee your instructions regarding how to "scare" venture capitalists with forecasted premature profitability. So true, so true. We went down the rocky road of having venture capitalists woo our retail corporation about a year ago, and we thank our little reluctant hearts that we did not take their money. We didn't even go after it in the first place. If we had, we most certainly would have become another failed dot-com e-retailer! Most of our competition has already filed for bankruptcy, while we continue to grow slowly and remain profitable, and, as we like to say, quoting Elton John's song, "I'm still standing ... yeah, yeah, YEAH!"

Here's my question for you: Do you see any hope for a dot-com upturn in 2001? Especially since more and more people are choosing to shop online and not shop in malls with snotty "sales" people and parking lot hassles?

Still Standing in San Luis Obispo

Dear Still Standing,

Dottie is not a fortuneteller, tarot-card reader or entrail-grubbing omen prognosticator. She does not work part time as an industry analyst, stock picker or trend spotter. But she is an etiquette specialist, and in that regard she is on firm ground when she advises you that it is bad manners to simultaneously quote impudent Elton John lyrics and disrespect venture capitalists. They might not be able to buy your privately held company, but if they get in a snit, they could wipe out your whole market sector before you could finish humming the chorus to "Crocodile Rock."

And that doesn't even begin to address the rudeness of asking Dottie Downturn about the possibility of an upturn. Do you want Dottie to lose this job too? Do you think this country is anywhere near ready for another giddy joy ride of hyperspeculative stock markets and IPO-a-minute madness?

Sniff. Excuse Dottie for a moment as she wipes a tear from her eye and recalls those happy days when a four-month-old start-up burning through $10 million a month could be valued at a billion after just a couple of hours on the stock market. When a degree in English lit could buy you a $90,000 director of corporate marketing position. When just the imposition of the prefix "e-" to an ordinary word would constitute a business plan worth $100 million of Kleiner-Perkins V.C. money.

Those days, Dottie fears, will never return -- no matter how many people decide to do their shopping online.

Dear Dottie Downturn,

I picked up the paper today and read that had laid off 100 workers. Last week Alta Vista fired 225. closed down before even opening, and is also kaput. The article said that 7,592 people had been laid off in the dot-com sector this year!

I'm kind of curious as to when these stats are going to start showing up in the unemployment numbers. But what really blows my mind is quotes like the one from CEO Rich Frank: "Like everyone else, what we all learned on April 15 is, the game now is you have to make a profit."

Dottie, I don't know about Mr. Frank, but I got my first lesson in the necessity of profit when I couldn't pay back my Dad for the lemons he fronted me when I did lemonade retail back in third grade. What is it with these dot-com dingbats? Their blithe ignorance of economic laws is an insult to all working people.

Laboring in Livermore

Dear Laboring,

What's that sound I hear? The dull rat-a-tat of cheap shots aimed at skewering dumb dot-com excess? Or the self-revealing wheeze of hot air escaping from a collapsing gasbag? It is clear that you completely misunderstood the economic lessons offered by your early lemonade entrepreneurship. When your father "fronted" you the lemons, as you so quaintly put it, he was instructing you in the basics of what it means to be a modern businessperson. Debt is good. Deficit spending is even better.

Open your eyes, man! We are a nation of debtors. The federal deficit is more than $5 trillion. Consumer credit card debt for the entire United States was $585 billion in 1999. The monthly trade deficit is running around $30 billion. And people are now carping over a few million here and a few million there being spent by dot-com visionaries. The shame, the shame.

An insult to working people?!! Far from it. On the contrary, demanding profits too early from dot-com start-ups is the real injustice -- the real insult to all people who understand how capitalism works. You know the old saw, don't you: "You've got to spend money to make money." The truth is, all you've really got to do is the first part -- spend money. Making money is an afterthought.

If you think about it, you'll see how much sense it makes. The more money you spend, the more money someone else is raking in, and the more vigorous the overall economy is. At least with dot-com expenditures, most of that money is staying within U.S. borders (give or take a few hundred million or so repatriated to foreign countries by programmers squeezing every penny out of their H1B visas). So Dottie begs, please, no more carping about aggrieved dot-commers complaining about having to balance their books. Until the people of this country understand, as they usually do, that making money is not the be-all and end-all of economic activity, we'll never be able to escape the dot-com quagmire we're stuck in and get back to the glory days of yore.

Dear Dottie Downturn,

The New Age, new-economy, "can't make a" industry has made me lazy in getting dates. I have now resorted to responding to online personal ads and flirting with people online. I have totally forgone flirting in public. I send e-mails to total strangers with the total risk of being humiliated, sort of like what I am doing right now. Is this right?

Lost Loser in Los Altos

Dear Lost Loser,

It is not really Dottie's responsibility to judge whether it is right or wrong for you to risk total humiliation.

Dottie does feel confident, however, in expressing her displeasure at your assumption that the "New Age, new-economy" et cetera has made you lazy. Your placement of blame reverses the actual power dynamic at work in the new economy. There would be no "can't make a" industry if it weren't for the fact that people are fundamentally lazy already. All of online commerce caters to this reality. It's quite clear by now that people, by nature, don't want to call travel agents, don't want to go shopping for groceries and can hardly bear to walk to the post office -- and God forbid that they should darken the doors of an actual bookstore.

What they can do, of course, is point and click. But as soon as voice recognition technology improves another rev or two, they will immediately forgo that arduous labor as well. But not because the technology is making them lazier but, rather, because the technology only now is finally catching up to our normal level of laziness.

Eventually, of course, our technological infrastructure will have improved to the point at which we don't have to do anything, period, and our every wish will be served. Shortly after that point, intelligent life on the planet will expire.

Dear Dottie Downturn,

A kinder, gentler Dottie? Come now, are readers (or you) really such delicate flowers? After changing careers several times and ending up smack in the middle of this "booming" sector of the economy, I find that it's definitely not for the squeamish. And I have yet to find a job that completely suits my subtle, sensitive, insightful and artistic nature -- how difficult for me! Alas, my stock options are not worth millions, the IPO has been deferred, resignations and firings abound and I have no BMW X5. Instead of the glamour and glitter of a new granite-countertopped loft, I rent, I have an old truck and a senile miniature schnauzer and I shop at Rainbow Grocery.

How sad. My next job might be happily bussing tables or gardening, but in the meantime here I am, the envy of some of my non-dot-com friends, who are eager to jump on board this "out-of-control train wreck in the making" called online business. The grass is always greener it seems. Kinder and gentler? Oh, come on, give 'em hell and f--- 'em if they can't take a joke.

Greener Grass at the Rainbow Grocery

Dear Greener,

Dottie is not sure she can discern a question here. She's also not sure if she should be heartened by what she assumes is an expression of support. And she hastens to assure you that her "kinder and gentler" turn of heart was no joke, and certainly not evidence of frail, flowerlike failure of resolve. No, the situation is far graver than that.

Dottie's therapist has a theory. Dottie may be suffering from one of the first well-documented cases of post-dot-com downturn disorder. And as layoffs continue to spread, Dottie is confident that she will be joined by thousands of other traumatized victims of end-of-the-century dot-com dementia.

What are the symptoms, you ask? The most obvious is an inability to stop checking your stock portfolio, even when all your holdings are well below the price you bought them at. There's also that annoying little twitch you keep making whenever you hear the word "start-up." But worst of all is the wet blanket of depression that lands on you every morning when you finally start to fight your way back to consciousness after a night spent annihilating Ice Maidens in Diablo II. What's left to live for when you've been to the other side of the digital revolution and seen that there's nothing there except Friday afternoon beer bashes and intermittent bandwidth slowdowns?

Post-dot-com downturn disorder. Coming from California to an online outlet near you.

Dear Dottie Downturn,

I feel like I completely missed out on the pack of venture capitalist morons who couldn't apply the "if this won't work as a phone-based service, why the hell would it work on the Internet?" rule of thumb to their prospective investees. By the time I come up with the next dumb (and I'm talking dumb here -- a real louie) Internet-based business plan, are there going to be any sheep left for me to fleece?



There will always be sheep left to fleece. P.T. Barnum's rule applies to venture capitalists just as well as it does to everyone else. If you keep your shears honed to a sharp edge, stay upwind and wait patiently for your opportunity, you will no doubt find a way to profit wildly off your dumber than dumb Internet-based business plan, just as so many others have before you.

But will we ever return to the golden age? Dottie senses in today's batch of questions that she is not alone in her nostalgia and grief for an era that slipped away between her fingers before she hardly had time to appreciate its many wonders and joys. In the haze of her post-dot-com downturn disorder, she begins to question whether it was all just a dream. Will she wake up tomorrow and realize that the "ongoing consolidation of the online pet supply retail sector" was something she read about in the new Richard Powers novel, and not something that actually happened to real people with real lives and, theoretically, real brains?

Dottie doesn't know. As she already has pointed out, she isn't inclined toward staring into crystal balls or seeking portents in the guts of disemboweled sacrificial animals. (Although come to think of it, there could be a peer-to-peer e-business opportunity in virtual sacrifice networking.) And even though she's still confident that the dot-com diaspora captured something essential about American business practices with a verve and vigor never before matched ("Debt is GOOD!" she screams silently into her pillow), she also is aware that anything so vital is like a cherry tree in midbloom -- breathtakingly beautiful, and yet as ephemeral as the melting snow.

Perhaps, Dottie surmises, that's the best way to think of the dot-com boom. Too delicate to survive the crass affections of willful accountants, too inherently true for America to be able to face every morning. It's time to let go.

By Dottie Downturn

A former full-time employee of now enjoying the freelance life, Dottie Downturn is convinced that layoffs aren't as bad as rude people say they are.

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