December 1 1999 by Joe Queenan
Because of unprecedented volatility in the stock market, a number of underwriters have been forced to delay or indefinitely postpone IPOs in the past few months. Most of the IPOs that have been pulled from the market involve “story stocks” issued by manufacturers or marketers of unusual products or services. Companies such as these tend to be long on promise, short on sales or earnings. In the following paragraphs we take a look at the most attractive of these fledgling firms.
NetSox. This Camden, NJ, outfit claims to be the first on-line retailer specializing exclusively in the overnight delivery of high-quality men’s socks. A 24-hour-a-day virtual clothing store, NetSox allows on-line shoppers to browse through its 3-D video displays of 10,000 different kinds of socks, and vows to deliver the products anywhere in the continental U.S. within 24 hours, a particularly valuable service during unexpected blizzards.
“Men hate shopping for socks because it makes them feel like dorks,” says company founder Bert Campanile, who built his company with the money he saved on hosiery after losing his right foot in a skiing accident in 1974. “But men also hate it when they’re on the road and the elastic gives out on their argyles or their calves show at the top of their shoes because their socks have shrunk. With the service we provide, men need never enter a department store again. What’s more, we are thinking of launching two sister operations, NetBoxer and NetJockey. And it’s only a matter of time before we tap the Web’s ultimate potential with NetSuds, the world’s first on-line laundromat.” NetSox figures to be priced in the $22 range; a decent price, but expect quite a bit of flipping the day of the IPO.
Jeep Station. This is a small but growing Madison, WI, company that has developed an automated jeep-rental system. Users insert a credit card into the Jeep Station, and after the machine has verified the account number, it automatically unlocks one of the 25 jeeps it contains. After the ride, the driver returns the vehicle to the Jeep Station, parks it inside, and the machine calculates the total charges. No fuss, no muss, no hitch, no hassle.
“Lots of Americans would love to show up at a barbecue driving a jeep, but can only afford some downscale station wagon,” explains founder Norm Fisk. “Jeep Station addresses that problem. It’s also perfect for the car-pooling suburban mother who hates being thought of as a ‘soccer mom’ just because she has three kids, a boyish haircut, and drives a Toyota Previa. At $75 a day, Jeep Station allows these affluent but bored women to walk on the wild side for a few hours.” When last we looked, Jeep Station was planning to go public at $15 a share, a tad rich, but nothing compared to the $56 a share that Cessna Kiosk, an automated renter of small jets, fetched when it went public in April 1998.
Neurotic.com. This Miami firm is the first financial Web site devoted to investors who aren’t wrapped too tight. Neurotic.com tailors its service to investors who harbor doubts about their self-worth, are plagued by indecision, blame everything on their parents, or are just plain out to lunch. Royce Ott, chairman of Neurotic.com, explains the company’s philosophy. “We think of the visitors to our Web site as ‘special needs investors’ who have a psychological involvement with their stocks that is probably not very wholesome. Ours is the first site that designs portfolios for everyone from nut jobs to crackpots to borderline psychopaths. Needless to say, this is the fastest-growing demographic group in America today.” Neurotic.Com earned $5.67 million on revenues of $138.5 million in fiscal ’98, largely by selling on-line advertisements to drug companies. When yanked from the IPO lineup in August, it was priced at $11 a share. We view it as a screaming bargain.
American Chuckle. Two years ago, when Bill Gates introduced Windows 98 to the press at the Comdex show in Chicago, the system crashed. This could have been a very embarrassing situation for Gates had he not been carrying some pre-scripted humorous material to handle the contretemps. As software buffs will recall, Gates deflated the situation by saying: “I guess we still have some bugs to work out. That must be why we’re not shipping Windows 98 yet.”
To the layman, it might seem that Gates was simply fast on his feet. But savvy insiders know that Gates’ inspired ad-lib was actually supplied by American Chuckle, a Milwaukee firm that specializes in clever retorts, cutting remarks, and witty asides. Last year, American Chuckle earned $136.7 million on sales of $356.8 million by providing businessmen, politicians, entertainers, and sports figures with fast comebacks to be used in various emergencies.
“No two ways about it, $43 a share might seem a bit rich for some folks’ pocketbooks,” says AC founder Chip Robespierre. “But believe you me, when a Bill Gates finds himself in a pickle, he’s willing to pay through the nose for a port in any storm.” Before founding American Chuckle, Mr. Robespierre worked as marketing director for Federal Cliche, the first company specializing in the manufacture and overnight delivery of hackneyed truisms and radiant banalities to Washington-based journalists.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal Street Journal.