One of the first lessons of life is that there's no such thing as free. Yet the Internet always seems to be on the verge of making that rule as obsolete as a 300-baud modem. Here, after all, is where all sorts of stuff costs nothing beyond the usual $20-a-month access fee--zillions of Web pages crammed with text and graphics, numberless discussion groups, blazingly fast search engines, lifetime e-mail accounts, even inter-national telephone calls.
But surely e-commerce capabilities cost something, right? They did until July, when Bigstep.com began offering to get masses of small businesses on the Web for almost nothing. That includes displaying catalogs, taking orders, publishing customer newsletters, analyzing Web activity, building relationships and a lot more that small businesses couldn't afford before.
Having seen the success Web-based community sites such as Geo-Cities and Xoom have had in hosting individuals' Web sites, Bigstep set out to apply essentially the same business model to e-commerce. "Big businesses were benefiting [from e-commerce] a great deal," says Andrew Beebe, 27, Bigstep's CEO and co-founder, "[but] there were a lot of people who were about to be left out."
This is no pre-fab electronic mall scheme, either. Each Bigstep member gets to design, construct and maintain his or her own Web site, with soft-ware residing on Bigstep's servers interactively walking them through each step of the process. And later, when it's time to blast out a customer newsletter, Bigstep's server will provide a list of the customers who visited the site and stats about what each one ordered or seemed interested in.
Bigstep is out to make a profit itself, of course, and it hasn't wrung out every cost of doing business on the Web. It plans to sell ads on its site--but not on members' individual pages--and charge for premium add-ons. "What we realized," says Beebe, "is that we would take a risk and place our bets on small businesses. Why charge at the door if everybody's going to be successful? Those that succeed will be interested in buying more services."
The company will process incoming orders at no charge, but to collect credit-card payments, Bigstep members must establish their own online merchant accounts. However, Bigstep has cut a deal with Card Service International that lets members maintain such accounts for a mere $14.95 a month. And members who want to have their own Web addresses instead of being listed under Bigstep's umbrella must pay the standard $70 registration fee, but Bigstep will handle the registration at cost, with no markup for itself.
"Free" still may not be entirely free, but Bigstep seems to live up to its name in approaching that goal.
John W. Verity reported and edited for 23 years at Electronic News, Datamation and Business Week. Since 1997, he has been freelancing from his Brooklyn, New York, home.
Do you know a type of company that's underserved by the Net?
If you think e-commerce is merely using the Web to sell more stuff to more people, you're only seeing part of the picture. Internet-based services are needed to enhance collaboration in a ton of specific industries. And that creates opportunities for a whole new breed of business.
A good example is BidCom Inc., whose services help architects, contractors, suppliers and others in the construction business. Instead of exchanging faxes and phone calls to coordinate schedules, move documents and prepare forms, they can all use BidCom's Web site (http://www.bidcom.com) as a shared library, communications center and virtual office. When a delivery of I-beams gets delayed, for instance, BidCom will notify all affected parties who are signed up for the service by e-mail, fax or pager.
A company called Impresse (http://www.impresse.com), meanwhile, has created a similar setup to streamline document flow within the digital printing industry. Another firm, Celarix (http://www.celarix.com), is helping companies track all their ocean and ship-born freight shipments worldwide. Instill (http://www.instill.com) is automating workflows in the food-service industry, and Magnifi (http://www.magnifi.com) is helping marketing departments collaborate with ad agencies and other partners. And because these schemes are all Web-based, participation isn't costly, meaning even the smallest businesses are potential customers.