“The trouble with the Internet,” says James Moskos, “is if you’re highly successful, you’re highly visible.”
Moskos was recently promoted to president of Bid.Com Technologies Group – a new division of Mississauga, Ont.-based Bid.Com International Inc. “If you do something wrong – you’re completely exposed.”
The risk of such exposure was driven home one day in late April when the company, which specializes in on-line auctions and related technology, first launched the Dutch Auction on its Web site ( www.bid.com). The streaming media production is viewable by on-line visitors equipped with the Windows Media Player or the Real Player and uses a real host (often a professional comedian) for the declining-price event. A declining-price auction starts at a certain higher price, which drops – on Bid.Com it’s every 20 seconds – until someone buys the product. “It plays off the desire to get a product against how low you want the price to go,” Moskos said.
Over a few hours, 125,000 unique visitors reportedly tuned in to see the live auction. “That’s a huge amount of traffic. We had not really believed we’d get that many users. The day before, on the off chance, we’d taken steps to increase the bandwidth of the ATM connection,” Moskos said. (That’s now more than a T3 line in capacity, he noted. “We always want to have oodles and oodles of extra capacity.”)
“We’re very lucky we took those steps,” he said. “We’ve been very fortunate, but I like to think of it as good planning.”
That’s one of the biggest dangers in this business – “unintended success; ill-thought-out levels of user interest” he said.
“We’re totally committed to 99.99 per cent up time – 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It’s important our customers can get access at any time. We’re fully fault-tolerant and redundant,” Moskos said, noting the company has a diesel-powered generator and full disaster site capability to support it reliability goals.
The computing environment at Bid.Com is Microsoft Windows NT-based, Moskos said, with HP NetServer multiprocessor servers and ATM Internet connectivity. There are at least 10 servers, including dedicated accounting, Web and database systems.
There are only about 10 IT people on staff, including:
about five programmers/developers who on a typical day are supporting and evolving the consumer platforms and the engines that are licensed to technology partners;
a couple of infrastructure specialists who manage systems, networking, bandwidth, interface, load balancing and disaster readiness; and,
about two people to handle systems and database support;
In addition to those tasks, the staff also has to pay close attention to security matters. “We’re a high-profile e-commerce site. We make every effort to guarantee security. That’s very, very important to us.
“There’s no question we’re a pretty lean company,” Moskos said. “But we’ve spent a lot of time developing the infrastructure. We have huge individual resources. We’re intensely automated. Every employee is leveraged in a huge way by proper tools. We have 10 people doing the work of 30.” For example, he said the Web’s storefront is so automated that staff can add a whole new product (including imaging) to the site in about 15 minutes.
Developing the Dutch Auction is just one example of how the IT department has been called upon to help push the technological envelope, in the interest of competitive advantage. “Jim has done a spectacular job,” said Gregory Bewsch, Bid.Com’s vice-president of investor relations. “It’s such a fast-moving industry; it’s virtually changing week by week.” Regarding the demands placed on the company’s IT staff, he commented: “There are long days and it’s stressful. But it’s fun – or else people wouldn’t be doing it.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s chaotic, but it’s very busy always. This industry moves at lightening speed,” Moskos said.
In addition to the live Dutch Auctions (on Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern time for Canadians and on Thursday nights for Americans), the www.bid.com site offers ascending price auctions that run over a set period of time (such as a day), as well as fixed-price sales. The site sells a variety of products, including computer systems, peripherals and accessories, consumer electronics, cameras, sports collectibles, books, jewellery and fitness products.
Bid.Com’s underlying technology is also being put to use at a number of business-to-business sites, generally in the form of partnerships. For example, Bid.Com owns 51 per cent of Point2 Internet Systems Inc. (www.point2.com), an on-line auction dealing in heavy equipment. Bid.Com has also struck partnerships with some other companies, including NBC subsidiary ValueVision, Vancouver’s SCS Solars Computing Systems Inc. and Calgary-based MegaWheels.Com. Bid.Com’s own technical staff is responsible for implementing and supporting the technology.
Bewsch said finding qualified staff “is a real challenge for us. We want to grow quickly.”
Aman Nathani, a systems manager at Bid.Com, said he enjoys the fact the IT staff gets to be involved in many stages of e-commerce. “We have fun working with the customers to make sure the experience is best for an e-commerce site.” He said he particularly enjoys being on the “front lines” of technology.
“Working with the technology is exciting. It’s very challenging but it’s quite rewarding,” said systems engineer Russ Friel. He said he’s constantly able to learn.
What’s so rewarding? “Selfishly speaking, it’s knowledge,” Friel said. And he considers it rewarding to be able to stay in Canada and work in e-commerce.
“We’re one of Canada’s only e-commerce-only companies,” Moskos agreed. “I think it’s a phenomenal place to work. All day, there’s the opportunity to do something to push technology. We’re able to contribute to the direction of a fast-paced industry.
“People are our most important resource,” he said. “We have lots of late-night pizza. It’s a very fun environment.” No one punches a clock. “I don’t mind if they come in later in the day, and work through the night. With creative people in general, you need to give more latitude to them.”
Along with a cappuccino machine, the office is equipped with a lounge area, futons (“So people can catch a few winks — I have one in my office,” Moskos said) and a shower. “We have pizza or Indian food for lunch.”
“Twelve-hour days are not unusual,” Friel said. On Dutch auction nights, an IT person needs to be around to support the auction, to make any necessary changes and to help verify bids. “It can be quite late at night.”
Has he made use of the futons and shower? “From time to time,” he admitted. And to manage any network downtime or to make changes, work sometimes needs to be done at 5 a.m. to inconvenience as few users as possible. “You have to buy into that concept to work here.”
Friel added: “You might want to mention – pizza is our favourite food.”
Bid.Com was founded in 1995, and now has offices in Mississauga, Ont., Tampa, Fla., and Dublin, Ireland with a total staff of about 60 people. About 50 of those are in Toronto, although the local IT department also has responsibility for the remote offices.
The company’s third-quarter revenue (for the period ended Sept. 30, 1999) was $8.3 million, up 32.6 per cent from $6.28 million in the third quarter of 1998. That’s also a 33.3 per cent increase over the $6.25 million earned in Q2 ’99.
Gregory Bewsch, Bid.Com’s vice-president of investor relations, said the company has a market capitalization value of US$250 million.
While consumers bid for items on the www.bid.com site, products are generally sourced from companies looking to move merchandise.