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IPO: Idiotic Public Offering

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A brief history of premature capitalization.

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It's hard to imagine a world without eBay, Amazon.com, Intel, Microsoft, Dell and Apple.

It's also easy to forget that these icons of American inventiveness nourished by Wall Street were once unproven companies and their successful IPOs helped create markets that didn't previously exist.

Go nerds and all that, but hat tips are boring.

It's more fun -- and edifying, in a business-school sort of way -- to remember colossal IPO flops. There were also dot-bomb era deals that would have flopped, had the company in question not been too ethereal. That was a new-issues market hooked on silliness - or at least on hope for future glory based on nothing more than a history of losses and what looked like a killer business plan (at least at the time).

Many IPOs burned through millions of dollars. Some gullible (or willfully ignorant) investors lost money.

The basic reason: in the early 1990s, the Internet was new, unproven and its future development was unclear. For some IPO investors, the attitude was: "We don't understand this Internet thing, but it's hot, it's filled with golly-gee-wow potential so let's shovel money into its maw."

This approach created a lot of clunk-headed ideas backed by uninformed investors, a recipe for what Wall Street delicately calls "negative returns."

Here are some of the most amazing all-time losers, including a glorious stinker that flopped before filing an IPO registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission:

Webvan:
OK, kids, get out your crayons and write 10 times: Margins are razor thin in the grocery business; success therefore depends on volume while holding down costs.

Somehow, the aspiring geniuses who founded Webvan overlooked the basics. The company used the Internet as a grand ordering device and promised delivery within 30 minutes of the customer's chosen drop-off time. Webvan once served ten U.S. markets, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Atlanta, and talked grandly of expansion.

But it turns out warehouses are expensive. Then you have to staff and stock them and hire others to deliver the goods. Come to think of it, fuel is also expensive.

Webvan raised about $375 million in an IPO. That's a hefty pile of cash for a bad idea, even one hatched during the height of Internet mania.

Minyanville rating: Exceeds the highest expectations of Doofusville.

Remember Kibu.com? Didn't think so. Click through to read about its improbable rise and predictable fall.
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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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