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[whitespace] Illustration The Profiteers

The Big Bang is worth big bucks

By Jim Rendon

WHEN THE PHONE rings at the Y2K Expo office, Justin Smith answers, "Hello, Rubber Stamp Affair." With only 43 days left till the odometer rolls over to 2000, chaos, gloom and doom have become a hard sell, Smith says. The bottom has fallen out of the Y2K convention business and the company has moved on to a more lucrative market: rubber stamps.

Though this company's April exposition at the San Jose Convention Center was sparsely attended, Smith says that Y2K Expo has actually been a solid business, sponsoring more events than the salesman can remember. The company brought in speakers who hype the disaster scenarios associated with total computer meltdown, and vendor booths filled with the latest in dried food and solar stoves. Up till now, he says, the apocalypse has sold well.

Y2K Expo is but one tiny piece of the international money machine created by the millennium bug and the cascading predictions that have followed. So many people are buying new computers that for the first time, PCs are getting more, not less, expensive. Local computer consultants say they can't keep up with the clamor for new Y2K compliant systems.

The web is thick with Y2K counselors for every need. Speakers well-versed in the habits of the millennium bug can bring in up to $15,000 an engagement. Peter de Jager, who molded himself into a nationally recognized doomsday soothsayer, has co-authored a book, testified before Congress and may earn $1 million this year. (Perhaps not surprisingly, his bio is completely silent on what he did before Y2K became a problem.)

The impending disaster has spawned more products than a George Lucas movie, though, granted, none quite as cuddly. There is Y2Cake, Y2K rations, Millennium the beanie baby bear and www.cluby2k.com, where survivalists can buy five-pound sacks of wheat, salt mills and hand-crank grinders.

Hundreds of Y2K books have hit the market in the handful of years since the acronym bubbled up through America's linguistic swamp. The self-help-style tomes offer all kinds of advice, from the sensible words Mom might offer--keep extra water and a pair of clean underwear on hand--to the freakish ramblings of the uncle that you were always warned to stay away from--buy guns, a water purifier and a kit to make your own jerky, and bury it all in the desert.

Y2K interest is so high on Amazon.com that the online store created a separate millennium shop last year. Though Amazon does not disclose sales figures, Emily Glassman, an Amazon spokesperson, says the online shopping site saw a big spike in Y2K interest at the beginning of the year, and though it has waned recently, customers are still buying plenty of survival guides and computer-fix-it books.

But the good times are almost over. On Jan. 2, many of those books will wind up in the recycling bin. And many companies that made a killing on Y2K are themselves beginning to look obsolete. Brian Graney, a writer with the online personal investment service Motley Fool, says the Y2K fix-it companies have tanked.

"In early 1998 the silver-bullet companies' [Y2K fix-it businesses] stock was going crazy," he says. "But now, most of the upgrades have been made." Stock that was once selling for $15 or $20 a share is now worth only $2 or $3 a share. There's just not much for them to do anymore. Wall Street has lost interest and is off trolling for the next big thing.

And Smith may be positioned well for the next millennium. If his apocalyptic vision of Jan. 1 is correct, that next big thing may indeed be rubber stamps.

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From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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