Everyone's Investing in B-to-B
By Michael V. Copeland

(Business 2.0) – Like miniskirts, thin ties, and Madonna, business-to-business startups go in and out of fashion. And with consumer plays like MySpace, Oodle, and Zazzle attracting plenty of funding during the past few years, B-to-B is poised for another comeback. Private equity investments in companies offering business products and IT services increased 9.4 percent and 7.6 percent respectively in the fourth quarter of 2005, while consumer firms saw a 17.8 percent decline during the same period. "We're very bullish on the enterprise," says Jim Goetz, a partner with Sequoia Capital.

One reason: Consumer-focused software from Google and others has shown companies what they're missing. Goetz's firm recently invested in Clearwell Systems, which offers Google-like search for corporate e-mail. Meanwhile, business-to-consumer startups have been hot for so long that their valuations have skyrocketed. "There are better deals on the enterprise side," says Gordon Ritter of Emergence Capital Partners.

It doesn't hurt that business demand for technology is expected to pick up, according to Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Jason Maynard. He predicts an acceleration in corporate IT spending beginning later this year and lasting well into 2007.

Sequoia's Goetz says most of the funding will go to familiar categories: mobile workforce support, database management, and business intelligence. But the new crop of startups promises to deliver real benefits through open-source alternatives, Web-based services, and consumer-proven technologies. "This time around," Goetz says, "it's about substance over style."

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