Site Bids to Make Experts' Wisdom An Online Commodity

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Web start-ups have come up with plenty of original schemes for raising venture capital, but Information Markets Corp. might be the only one that tried to win it on a game show.


One of the New York firm's two founders took to the trivia podium on Comedy Central quiz show "Win Ben Stein's Money" earlier this year, hoping to score an instant seed round. It didn't go well.


"Let's just say we ended up having to look for capital from other sources," said president Michael J. Stern, who wouldn't specify whether he or co-founder Ralph Frankel was the contestant in question. But never mind - Information Markets has since attracted private investment and is using it this month to begin touting the information auction services available at www.infomarco.com.


A marketing push begins this month with 2,500 to 3,000 e-mails going to experts from various fields who have registered at infomarco.com.


Like eBay Inc., San Jose, CA, Information Markets is an auction in the truest sense - but not one that hawks products. The company links Netizens with experts on a variety of subjects.


As the service is planned, after visitors pose a question at infomarco.com or a third-party portal site hosting the service, Information Markets will take the query to however many of its 10,000 registered experts might be appropriate, and then it will bring bids for answers back to the visitor. And like eBay, Information Markets will get a cut of the action - 20 percent of the expert's fee will be typical, Stern said.


Other firms such as Exp.com Inc., Menlo Park, CA, offer similar services. Like the offline Yellow Pages, Exp.com lets users contact "advisors" and then negotiate a price.


For Information Markets, the early challenge has been threefold: The company had to attract experts, third-party portal sites that can have Information Markets' service within their pages and, of course, people to ask questions. The last group is easiest, Stern said, because signing portal deals automatically makes the firm visible to Web traffic.


Landing deals is the responsibility of the company's business development people. So far portals like the service because it adds to their online offering and they get part of the commission Information Markets takes from transactions.


Gathering more experts is where the e-mail campaign comes in. The company offers its existing experts the chance to win prizes for other experts they bring on board. To maximize the "viral" effect, those referrals are eligible for prizes as well. The e-mail push is expected to eventually total 10,000 messages, and Information Markets is investigating banner ads, Stern said.


Information Markets took its site into "soft launch" in October and isn't yet charging for services. Technologically, the site should be ready for action this month, Stern said, but he plans to hold off on charging for services until after he has seen some of the effects of the marketing campaign.


In another parallel to eBay, people posing questions will rate experts after they've dealt with them. As for the experts themselves, Stern does not foresee difficulty in getting them to take part in the program after they've signed on.


"I would say that there is a very simple incentive that has been well-tested in the world," Stern said, "and that's money."
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