The staggering variety of investment opportunities along the information superhighway was driven home recently when the Wall Street Journal ran a story entitled, “Mexican Internet Stocks Catch on Fire with Wall Street’s Investors and Firms.” In it, the financial paper of record said the “Mexican media bellwether” Grupo Televisa, SA needed to expand a secondary offering of its American depositary receipts after announcing an ambitious Internet strategy, and that its holding company Grupo Televicentro SA had raised $1.13 billion by selling off a 9.1 percent stake in its subsidiary.
The paper also reported that Mexico’s largest financial services organization, Grupo Financiero Banamex-Accival SA, had been favorably upgraded by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter after launching an on-line stock-trading service, and that the entertainment company Interamericana de Entretenimiento was planning to swap “content” for a majority stake in the portal company Latin Entertainment.
These revelations will doubtless make investors salivate, wondering whether similar opportunities are to be found in other Third World Internet stocks. Happily, the answer is yes, and herein we will identify some of the emerging-nation Web enterprises that most warrant investors’ scrutiny.
The first company of note is Paraguay Online (POL). Though not exactly a clone of its more famous American forbear, POL is the best positioned of the South American, content-providing, Internet service providers. This is because Paraguay recently decided to drop everything and employ every able-bodied man, woman, and child as a POL service representative.
Because wages are so low in this remote, backwards, generally horrible country, it is possible for POL to employ a staff of 320,000 full-time employees while paying less than $12 million in wages. Since subscribers can immediately get a customer service representative on the phone whenever they call the ISP, in sharp contrast to the interminable waits clients encounter when they contact Ecuador Online, Venezuela Online or Nicaragua Online, POL has virtually cleared the field of competitors in the past six months.
“As an ISP, POL has done a magnificent job,” says Gayle Stansworth, an analyst at Franklin, Meridien Cohibas, an Asuncion-based brokerage firm. “But as a content provider, the companystill has a long way to go. Too many of the chat rooms on POL are devoted to kidnapping and torture, and all those rumors that Martin Bormann is the brains behind the outfit certainly haven’t helped. But if you’re looking to get in on the ground floor with a South American portal, Paraguay Online is the creme de la creme.”
Another company that merits a long look is Southofthe Borders.com. Unrelated to the American book-selling chain, Southoftheborders.com sells its books, magazines, compact discs, and videos at 15 percent off list price, but bills customers at the currency rate in their respective countries on the morning of the day of purchase, not at the time the order is actually placed.
“Since South American currencies have been known to deflate 40 percent over lunch time, this is a significant selling point for consumers,” says Felipe Gonzalez, an analyst at Cortez, Balboa, Pizzaro Gruenthals. “Some small bookstores in Bolivia actually buy their stock from Southoftheborder.com, capturing that currency arbitrage, and then resell the inventory to their customers at a 50 percent markup. Of course, the money they get in return is worthless by the end of the day, but at least they have a sound business plan.” Yet another dot-com start-up aimed at the Latin market is Ole! a Latino clone of Yahoo! Based in Tierra del Fuego, Ole! looks like the American portal, offers the same services, and even exudes the same counter-cultural, David vs. Goliath vibe as the American portal. Yet, oddly enough, the company was founded by two Norwegians, Henrik Hamsun and Knut Munch. “We started out with a portal called Oofta!, but there simply weren’t enough Norwegians to make it profitable,” explains Munch. “Then we launched a French language imitation of Yahoo! called `Satre Bleu!’ and an Italian one called ‘Madonna!’ before eventually settling on ‘Ole!’ Once we get taken over by somebody like Disney, we’re going to use the cash to launch something like ‘Banzai!’ or ‘Gung-Ho!’ Every country wants a portal in its own language. Which means that we may eventually get back to ‘Oofta!’”
Not all Third World Internet start-ups are based in South America. Take Urdu-Bay. Based in downtown Ulan Bator, Urdu-Bay is an online auction service that caters to the burgeoning Mongolian middle class. Since it is too cold to go out of the house in Mongolia eight months of the year, Mongolians traditionally have had to store up enough food to last the winter and then stay indoors. Thanks to Urdu-Bay, Mongolians can now bid on groceries and have them delivered by overnight courier. Trading at just $6 a share, Urdu-Bay seems like a screaming buy, particularly as the company has just announced plans to launch an online livery service called YAK.COM.
Finally, take a gander at juju.com, a site providing info about unusual Third World homeopathic techniques. When traditional medical treatments fail, increasing numbers of Net surfers have turned to exotic remedies such as juju, mojo, voodoo, and gris-gris. This Timbuktu-based Web site has been so successful that it is considering launching a sister offering juju.village, for females only.
Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.