Technology

A relic’s tale: Clipping tickets on the information superhighway

Paul Wallbank /

It’s been a bad week for internet services company Melbourne IT with the announcement its CEO is leaving, reduced revenues and an embarrassing role in an internet attack on The New York Times and Twitter websites.

That Melbourne IT is looking at cutting management costs and returning cash to shareholders in the face of declining revenues doesn’t come as any surprise to observers of the firm.

In many ways Melbourne IT is a historic relic, one of the last examples of the late 1990s dot com boom where management from those heady days survived unscathed by the realities of the 21st century.

The Melbourne IT story illustrates the poor management and flawed investment strategies of the big dot com float and also illustrates the risk of under-investing in key areas, as anyone using the site or the services of its Web Central subsidiary will understand.

Both companies feature clunky sites and extremely poor customer service. For resellers and customers using the Web Central command centre, the experience and technology is straight out of the late 1990s.

While overseas businesses like Rackspace, GoDaddy and Bluehost innovated and invested in their platforms, Web Central and Melbourne IT sat back and expected their dominant position would guarantee them profits.

Much of that management complacency was born out the founding of Melbourne IT when it was spun off from the University of Melbourne to exploit the then monopoly the university’s computer faculty had on granting Australian commercial domains.

In 1998, as the dot com boom was entering its most heated phase, Melbourne IT was floated and immediately attracted anger and allegations of wrongdoing – none of which was proved – as the stock debuted on the stock market at four times its listing prices, which generated huge profits for the insiders who were fortunate to get shares allocated before the sale.

Melbourne IT’s huge stock valuation was based on the belief the company would exploit its dominance of the critical domain market – it was similar to other technology floats of dominant players at the time such as accounting giant MYOB in 1999 and Telstra’s spin-off of its small business Commander operation the following year.

All of these stock market floats proved to be disastrous as each company’s management showed they were incapable of exploiting their privileged market positions.

Of the three, Melbourne IT’s management survived longest partly because of the riches expected to flow into the company’s coffers through top level domain sales as gullible government agencies and corporates being driven by a fear of missing out overpay for new online addresses.

Now it appears ICANN’s top level domain river of gold isn’t going to flow, partly due to arrogance and management incompetence in that organisation, so Melbourne IT is now going to have to cull its executive ranks.

Steadily, both Melbourne IT and Web Central have gone from being dominant to irrelevant and provide a good case study of how poor management and complacency can squander a dominant market position.

The failure of Melbourne IT’s management proves that clipping tickets on the internet is not always the path to riches, particularly when you don’t invest or innovate.

Paul Wallbank‘s latest book, eBu$iness, Seven Steps to Online Success, shows how business can get online quickly and cost effectively using web 2.0, cloud computing, social media and e-commerce tools.

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Paul Wallbank

Paul Wallbank writes on how IT affects communities, markets and workplaces. He also helps businesses to grow and engage their customers with technology.

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