Mile-high mecca for dot-com movers and shakers

Jon Swartz,, 10.04.99, 12:00 AM ET

ASPEN, COLO.--It's no coincidence that an exclusive inner circle of online executives met in the rarified air of this mile-high ski resort hamlet over the weekend.

The backdrop of the Rocky Mountains served as stunning symbolism for Net Returns 2000, a four-day retreat that aspired to elevate itself over a spate of run-of-the-mill high tech summits. This isn't exactly a networking conference of 50,000 geeks in some concrete convention hall in Anaheim.

"These are fantastic schmooze fests for CEOs, the type that leads to substantive strategic relationships," says Farhad Mohit, CEO of, an online shopping guide. "There weren't a lot of salespeople running around."

Net Returns resembled a Bohemian Grove of the digital economy, with the likes of Jake Winebaum, former head of Walt Disney's dis (nyse: dis) Internet operations; Jim Clark, cofounder of Netscape Communications and Healtheon hlth (nasdaq: hlth); Hambrecht & Quist CEO Dan Case; and Stan Lee, founder of Marvel Enterprises mvl (nyse: mvl). Here, they discussed the nuances of e-commerce recruiting, financing, technology integration and strategy.

But instead of a classic computer trade show, where thousands of consumers buy an all-day ticket so they can be herded into an auditorium filled with nondescript exhibitor booths, this powwow is decidedly informal. "It's like hosting a party; there's a certain special sauce to getting it right," says John Battelle, CEO of The Industry Standard, the San Francisco-based publisher that organized the event. "We're trying to bring together a critical mass of old guard companies adapting to the Internet and the new guard firms attempting to eat the old guard's lunch."

"The next wave of the Net's growth is all about integrating online operations into established companies," adds Winebaum, who is now CEO of eCompanies, an incubator" for Net startups. "A setting like this is the perfect forum for mixing the two cultures."

Net Returns and its predecessor, Internet Summit, are informal, scaled-down events designed for a select number of industry honchos. Of the more than 2,000 requests to attend this weekend's shindig, only 375 individuals--most of them CEOs--were invited.

"It's an ideal way to pick the brains of other executives," says Greg Peters, CEO of Vignette, a maker of Internet business software. "Successful conferences are all about access. You pay a lot of money to go to one of these things, and you have certain expectations."

The standard (no pun intended) was set at The Industry Standard's Internet Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., in July. There, heads of startups rubbed elbows with eBay ebay (nasdaq: ebay) CEO Meg Whitman, amzn (nasdaq: amzn) CEO Jeff Bezos, Yahoo! yhoo (nasdaq: yhoo) CEO Tim Koogle and America Online aol (nyse: aol) COO Bob Pittman.

"Everybody had something of value to share," recalls Will Clemens, CEO of, another online shopping service. "It was a chance for startups like us to learn from big names, and an opportunity for them to hear from the up-and-comers."

Gwynn goes to bat for Sony: Future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn had grounded out meekly to second base against an anonymous Montreal Expos pitcher. "This kid threw what looked like a nasty fastball," said Gwynn, one of only 23 players with 3,000 hits. "I needed to take another look."

So between innings, the San Diego Padres right-fielder went into the bowels of Qualcomm Stadium and consulted with his hitting instructor--the Sony DVCAM digital-video system.

Upon further review, Gwynn discovered the pitch was a slider. Armed with visual information, he singled in his next at-bat. "I wouldn't be the player that I am if not for video," said Gwynn, an eight-time National League batting champion and 14-time all-star.

Gwynn, 39, is a self-avowed video junkie who has used the technology since 1983. A room in his San Diego area home is a shrine to video technology ("I've got every format from VHS to DVCAM," he boasts) and he travels on the road with a portable DV player. Gwynn swears by Sony's state-of-the-art system, which offers crystal-clear images and frame-by-frame slow motion replays. "It shows me what I'm doing right and wrong," Gwynn says. "I can study my footwork, learn about pitchers and catchers, and get an idea of an umpire's strike zone."

Gwynn and the Padres think so much of the equipment that they awarded team videographer Mike Howder a half share when they reached the 1998 World Series.

(Other teams, including the New York Yankees, Cincinnati Reds and Florida Marlins, are considering investing in the $9,500 to $19,000 Sony system.) But Gwynn falls short of proclaiming the DVCAM and other video equipment a panacea for hitting woes. "You can prepare all you want, but the bottom line is you have to execute," he says. "That means you see the ball, hit it and run like hell."

Sigmund Freud, Jr.: Dismiss this observation as the ramblings of an amateur psychologist, but Rick Belluzzo, Microsoft's msft (nasdaq: msft) new Internet point man, looked extremely uncomfortable at the software giant's daylong briefing in Seattle last month. Belluzzo's shaky performance fueled speculation among industry analysts that the short-term CEO of Silicon Graphics sgi (nyse: sgi) may have another abbreviated tenure at his demanding new job.

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