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A New Way to Get Customized Service Quotes

This story appears in the January 2012 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What price do you put on a once-in-a-lifetime experience? The online platform OpenChime is helping users determine exactly that, providing aggregated customized quotes on services from the unusual to the mundane.

Bennett Schwontkowski, founder of Cary, Ill.-based Corporate Balloons, says Openchime has helped his business take off.
Photo© Tom McKenzie

When one hopeless romantic wanted to pop the question on a hot-air balloon ride, an OpenChime search led to Cary, Ill.-based Corporate Balloons, which specializes in branded promotions for corporate clients but also wanted to connect with individuals who might want to take to the air for a pleasure cruise.

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"Most of our business comes from word-of-mouth," says Corporate Balloons founder and president Bennett Schwontkowski. "We don't do Yellow Pages advertising, because our corporate work keeps us quite busy. With OpenChime we started getting inquiries, and people were asking a lot of intelligent questions about what we do."

Corporate Balloons now has booked three flights through Chicago-based OpenChime, although only one culminated in a marriage proposal.

OpenChime is the brainchild of CEO Erdem Kiciman, who founded it in 2010 with fellow MIT grad Kale McNaney. When a user submits a request for a service, OpenChime springs into action, identifying and contacting qualified contractors from nearby small businesses, collecting bids and sending them back in a single e-mail.

"Local businesses hadn't been addressed properly on the web," Kiciman says. "Users go online, do a search and then call local businesses to ask about their services and prices, which is not so different from using the Yellow Pages. Ratings and reviews aren't helpful when you have specific questions. You have to reach out.

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You need conversations happening, but there are too many challenges and too much friction in between."

Chime InOpenChime sets those conversations in motion. According to Kiciman, the average user spends less than 60 seconds filling out their job-request form, and OpenChime transmits the completed query to nearby companies whose online keywords match up with the task at hand. Business owners interested in tackling the project simply reply to customer questions as best they can, and consumers then select which response best suits their specific demands. The service is free to users, and businesses that win the bid pay OpenChime whatever percentage of the commission they believe is fair.

"If we can't trust businesses to pay us, how can our customers trust them?" Kiciman asks. "Besides, no one knows your business as well as you do. We can't say, ‘All handymen should pay 10 percent.' The economics are different everywhere. The reality is that the more businesses do for us, the more we can do for them. We want to change the way local services are done."

So far, OpenChime has helped consumers find services in more than 1,500 cities worldwide. "We want to cover the long tail," Kiciman says. "Whatever you need, we can match it and deliver it. We're doing all the research for you."

And investors are doing their research into OpenChime: In mid-2011, Lightbank--the Chicago investment firm started by Groupon co-founders Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell--invested $700,000 in the platform.

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Corporate Balloons' Schwontkowski is high on OpenChime's possibilities. "We're a niche business that offers a once-in-a-lifetime experience. OpenChime lets consumers see what else is out there, and we're confident they'll come back to us," he says. "When you take people out for a flight, you know you've created a fond memory in their minds and in their photo albums. After the first OpenChime inquiry, I had some questions and I called them up. The first thing I told Erdem is, ‘You just participated in making somebody's life happier.'"

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