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BigVine bartering site launches

A stealth barter start-up trades in its secrecy for a launch with high-profile partner American Express.

A stealth barter start-up traded in its secrecy today for a launch with high-profile partner American Express.

Formerly code-named Doublebill, BigVine today took the wraps off a "beta," or trial version, of its business-to-business barter Web site. As reported in December, BigVine is in the business of letting firms trade their goods and services rather than buying them with cash.

The idea with barter sites is to let firms get rid of excess goods and services while conserving cash. The barter sites make money by charging a commission on transactions, which are valued according to a site-specific currency.

Others in the same space include BarterTrust and Ubarter.

BigVine today said it had collected more than $50 million in venture funding. As previously reported, the Redwood Shores, Calif.-based start-up is backed by Internet venture capital heavyweight Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. Other investors include American Express and Robertson Stephens founder and former chairman Sanford Robertson.

Under the partnership with American Express, AmEx will market the barter service to its small business cardholders, which number more than 2 million, as well as to businesses that accept the American Express Card.

"Our partnership with AmEx will help to build credibility for the barter space, and especially for BigVine," BigVine chief executive Bippy Siegal said in an interview. "They have made a significant investment in the company and it's a very strong operational partnership."

Siegal, co-founder of automated teller technology firm AmeriCash, which American Express bought in 1998, also was co-president of investment firm TwoLink and chief executive of consulting firm Palace International.

Siegal said BigVine was already experiencing "incredible momentum" in its service, and that it had hired more than 150 full-time employees.

BigVine will offer lines of credit to its small business clients in partnership with AmEx, adding liquidity to its insular economy of so-called Trade Dollars.

"If your small business hasn't made a purchase already, you can borrow Trade Dollars from our economy," Siegal said. If borrowers don't earn enough Trade Dollars through their own barter sales, they can repay the debt in regular U.S. dollars, with which Trade Dollars have a one-to-one exchange rate.

In its competition with other barter start-ups, BigVine has submitted "numerous" patents related to search technology that will give it a leg up. Headed by chief technology officer Louis Monier, founder and former chief technologist for search technology firm AltaVista, BigVine's search technology team has invented technologies specific to the barter marketplace. These include localized searches so users can search for services and large goods that cannot be shipped feasibly.

Siegal called the search patents "a real differentiator between us and our potential competition."

For the next several months, BigVine will focus on small and medium-sized businesses, in part because of its early partnership with AmEx. In the second and third quarters of the year, the company will turn its attention to large businesses.