Topless Towers

Now that President Bush has made it OK to mention matters of faith in public, maybe it’s time to sermonize a bit and denounce pride. Medieval Christian morality plays were written to remind mortals of the fickleness of fortune and the dire price to be paid for earthly transgressions. The Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, working in this tradition but expanding it in his own fiery, poetic way, created a personality type that literary critics have christened the Overreacher. As exemplified by Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, this person brims with intelligence, energy, and an overwhelming desire to break the bounds of convention. But in pushing his passions to the limit, he aims too high and suffers a tragic fall — often literally to his death.

The parallels with modern-day Overreachers are clear, whether they be fledgling dot-coms or mighty Microsoft. But how do you apply moral lessons in an organizational context? Is punishment the inevitable consequence of ambition?

Not necessarily. Perhaps the best way to realize aspirations is to understand the limits of time and space. As (successful) e-merchant David Bolotsky points out in this issue (see page 52), the hallmarks of profitable companies in the next few years will be gradual growth and cautious investment in technology. The excesses of the late ’90s, fueled by big egos and big money, were no closer to reality than a necromancer’s apparitions.

“A 13-page PowerPoint presentation would get you a check for $13 million,” says Kevin Silverman, managing director at investment bank ABN AMRO in Chicago. “But none of the distribution and other costs changed while companies built capabilities that far exceeded the demand. If you spend 80% of your sales dollars on distribution, it’s not going to work out.” He adds that in the e-commerce growth curve, however, “the trajectory is staring to shift to where it doesn’t need to be infinite any more.”

Much like Faustus conjuring up the spirit of Helen of Troy, the dot-coms masterminded an illusion. “They created a façade and that was all,” asserts Craig Sloss, director of sales and marketing at Centra Worldwide, Inc., a logistics provider in Huntington Beach, CA. Investing in brick and mortar, such as lavish offices and cavernous warehouses, “gave some semblance of a substantial entity” to an enterprise whose sole raison d’être was an IPO, Sloss says. “There was no way to ever turn that into a profitable business. I equate it to the whole junk bond era.”

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