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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

May 3, 1999

How to succeed in I-commerce without breaking the bank

Programmer Serge Wilson has spent a lot of time studying how businesspeople think. That's why I'm betting that his Internet-commerce start-up, Freemerchant, stands a good chance of success.

Freemerchant, at www.freemerchant.com, provides any merchant with a relatively complete Web store -- including a product catalog, shopping cart, and store-building tools, plus site hosting and credit card processing services -- all free of charge.

The company is supported by banner ads at the bottom of every Freemerchant Web store, and by commissions paid by Freemerchant partners for customer referrals.

Launched in December 1998, Freemerchant already hosts more than 2,000 merchants from, Wilson tells me, "every continent on the globe except Antarctica." Freemerchant customers sell everything from network cabling to vintage guitars, as well as offline services such as dentistry. Like eBay, it's a cheap, effective sales channel for small businesses.

There are other places to get free or low-cost Web commerce services. Wilson is confident his model will prevail because his success is tied to that of his customers: The more site visitors and sales the merchants get, the more advertising revenue Freemerchant can collect.

But what really gives Freemerchant an edge is Wilson's own knowledge about how his customers' businesses work.

I met Wilson last month at TechFaire 99 in Walnut Creek, Calif., where we shared the stage for a panel discussion on Internet commerce. Wilson spent most of his allotted time explaining the basics of Web success to the audience: how to build and stock a store, the importance of aggressive marketing and promotion, and how critical customer service is. In other words, he dispensed sound business advice, not technical razzle-dazzle.

Surprising restraint for a technical guy. Wilson has been a programmer since before he had access to a computer: At age 12, he wrote and debugged computer programs on paper. When he first got access to a university computer a year later, Wilson boasts that every one of his handwritten programs ran without a hitch. Since then, he's been hooked.

Wilson ran a systems integration company for 10 years before founding Emeryville, Calif.-based Freemerchant. Along the way, he discovered that businesspeople generally have a better sense of how to run their companies than programmers do.

"I learned to just listen, and to ask tons of questions before writing line one of code. By the time you're done, the client has flowcharted the application for you," Wilson said.

This approach let him meet his clients' business requirements on the first try, minimizing re-coding and lengthy iterative development cycles. The long apprenticeship also gave Wilson insight into how business works.

Techies would do well to imitate his example. With I-commerce on the rise, developers, Web managers, and IT directors need to be tuned in to how their companies work.

As an entrepreneur, Wilson will need to muster as much business and customer knowledge as possible, and he needs to incorporate more of it into Freemerchant in the form of how-to guides and services. He also has to find funding, promote his company, and sign more advertisers and partners -- typical tasks of a start-up. If he's successful, Freemerchant might be the next eBay.

Do your technical employees know how to listen? Write to me at dylan@infoworld.com.

Dylan Tweney is the content development manager for InfoWorld Electric. He has been writing about the Internet since 1993.

Previous columns by Dylan Tweney

Online music David has industry Goliaths quaking in their boots
April 26, 1999

Consumers, unite! Use the Net to drive down prices of goods
April 19, 1999

Companies get a clue about the Net: It's not just business as usual
April 12, 1999

A swarm of WASPs will add to the buzz on the business Net
April 5, 1999

Every column since August, 1997

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Copyright © 1999 InfoWorld Media Group Inc.

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