The direct-marketing mailer sounded too good to be true: You too could be become a global entrepreneur realizing untold wealth from the Internet simply by turning "your Web site into a 24-hour credit card order-taking machine" and selling vast quantities online of whatever product you wished. All you had to do was let Salt Lake City-based Fortune Financial Services point the way to the millions. And by attending its free two-hour "Internet Success Conference" at the Park Central Sheraton Hotel in North Dallas, you would also receive two round-trip airline tickets for travel to any one of 40 destinations around the world.
The pitch must have worked, because more than 80 people from every demographic clustered into a conference room at the Sheraton last Saturday to listen. Steve Van Ootegan, in white shirt and dark tie, possessing all the charisma of a Baptist preacher, began the Fortune Financial spiel. "Does everyone know who Amazon.com is?" he asked.
Most in the audience nodded their heads. But for those unfamiliar with this modern-day legend of Internet success, Van Ootegan recounted how the online bookstore's founders were now worth $12.3 billion -- not million, he said, but billion. And those Yahoo guys who started in the basement with three computers on top of each other? They're now worth $4.3 billion. That few Internet companies have actually reported any profit was a moot point for Van Ootegan's purposes. "How many people came here today to go out and not just make a million dollars, but multiple millions of dollars?"
Dozens of hands shot up.
Van Ootegan, who claimed he had served in the U.S. Marines and worked for Ross Perot's Electronic Data Systems, then told his listeners that if they wanted to exploit the Internet like the founders of Amazon.com, they had to become "E-Commerce enabled."
Some in the crowd looked puzzled.
People are "E-Commerce enabled," Van Ootegan explained, when they own a Web site that is set up to accept major credit cards and take orders for goods or services over the Internet.
And time was running out. Those who were going to make money off the Internet had a narrowing window of opportunity. "People who get in at the bottom of a trend," Van Ootegan told the crowd, "are the ones who make a lot of money." Perhaps six months remain to secure a place on the Web, he said.
But not to worry. Fortune Financial was there to enable the wannabe-enabled. For a low, low one-day-only price of $5,995, Fortune would create a 25-page Web site and offer six months of Web services and marketing -- but only for those willing to act now. After today, the price would return to its everyday low price of $9,000. What's more, you didn't even need to have an existing business to participate.
The Internet, said Van Ootegan, is not the exclusive terrain of businesses that already have something to sell. Instead, audience members could simply devise a concept, drive traffic to their Web site, take orders, and then charge a commission to an affiliate business that provided the actual product or service to the customer. And if they didn't have a concept, well, that wasn't a problem either. Fortune Financial, as part of its deal, was offering commercial Web site purchasers 143 possible concepts to start selling on their pages. These would be disclosed, however, only upon purchase of a Web site.
Fortune Financial, a 3-year-old, over-the-counter firm with $48 million in annual revenues, has conducted dozens of seminars since November like the one held at the Sheraton, according to Fortune's president, Shawn Thomas. The company has drawn 50,000 people to such events, and while only 2 to 3 percent of them have bought Web sites and services, that's been enough to generate about $8 million in sales. Most of the company's revenues come from telemarketing, Thomas says.
In Dallas this past weekend, the seminars took place at four different hotels and times and attracted more than 300 people. About 15 attendees, Thomas says, bought a site and some of the services.
In the Sheraton audience, Barbara, a teacher at a local suburban elementary school who didn't want her last name mentioned, hopes to sell spices on the Internet. She and her husband were planning to buy a site that day if they could swing the finances. "We're going to do it if we can," she said.
Even those who weren't necessarily buying liked what they heard. Mike Thatcher, a computer programmer and drummer in a Christian band, wants to sell his CDs on the Web. He was going to do some more Web site price-shopping, but thought Van Ootegan's offer looked attractive. "It's a good deal," he said. His father, who had come along with the idea of selling home insulation on the Internet, also liked the presentation.
But even the business of creating global online entrepreneurs is not without its competition. Last weekend, Van Ootegan was not alone. Tauheeduh Whitfield, a customer service representative for a paging company, and her husband, an auto mechanic, planned to attend another marketing event by another provider of Web sites at another hotel in North Dallas on Sunday. The couple wanted to advertise auto detailing services on the Internet. But, she said, "We're going to wait and see before we buy." Back at the Sheraton, Van Ootegan impressed Alan Bach, a vice president of MarketNet, Inc., a 4-year-old Dallas-based company that sells and services Internet sites for commercial customers, because Fortune's prices seemed fairly reasonable.
"It's hard to say what you're getting, though," Bach said. The company most likely has developed a template for sites -- a sort of cookie cutter for the Web, he added. Bach stressed that Internet design must be constantly updated. "If you don't have the necessary support, it's like putting a store out in the desert and nobody can find it," he said. "We always try to be careful about painting a glory picture. A couple of times we've told people no, they don't need a site."
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Van Ootegan, however, lacked similar restraint in his sales pitch. "Are there a lot of negative people around?" he asked his audience. "You have to be very disciplined in your mind here," he said, pointing to his own head. "You need to keep negative comments from coming in here. I will not spend 15 seconds with a negative person. By the way, I learned that from Ross."
When the Dallas Observer called Ross Perot's office to ask him about Van Ootegan, the billionaire's secretary reported that her boss "never heard of the guy" and has alerted his lawyers. Perot telephoned the Observer later in the afternoon to make sure he could get a number to reach Van Ootegan and clarify the matter with the speaker who was using his name so freely. Shawn Thomas says that Van Ootegan worked for EDS from 1975-1978, and that he had learned much of the Ross wisdom he passes along to audiences in memos from the company's then-chief executive. But Perot insists his management style was to talk to his troops. "I didn't write memos," the billionaire said.
As Van Ootegan's own talk wound down, he began to press harder, obviously interested in closing a few deals. This was a one-day-only sale, he repeated, a special offer, a potential tax-write off -- why, it wouldn't even show up on their credit cards for 60 days.
As the crowd broke up, several dozen people chose to stick around, ready to consider purchasing their Web site before it was too late. A prospective bride and her mother ducked out immediately. They had come just to get the airline tickets and economize on her honeymoon. Only they learned that the free airfare came in the form of a mail-in coupon. Moreover, to get the giveaway tickets, they had to commit to paying full price at certain luxury hotels for a mandatory minimum stay. Not the bargain they'd expected from an Internet Success Conference where "entrepreneurs and business owners are cashing in on the billion-dollar" industry.