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Respond.com to connect buyers with sellers

A venture-backed start-up is quietly preparing a new spam-free way for consumers to request product information from companies.

A venture-backed start-up is quietly preparing a new spam-free way for consumers to request product information from companies.

Benchmark Capital and Hummer Winblad today announced new financing for Respond.com. The service, due to launch in pilot later this month, lets customers fill out a form to request an item, then sends the request anonymously to merchants registered for the service. Vendor responses are then forwarded to the would-be buyer to act on.

"It's really what interactive Yellow Pages should have been from the beginning," said William Gurley, a venture capitalist who made two investments in Respond.com, once with seed capital while he was at Hummer Winblad, and now at Benchmark, where he moved last year. "The deal's so nice I funded it twice." (Gurley is a columnist for CNET News.com).

The marketing service is in fact more popular with offline retailers than with some Internet-only merchants, said chief executive Will Clemens, noting that his firm has now received $4.5 million in venture capital.

"Offline businesses love it across the board. They are looking for good ways to get introduced to online customers," Clemens said. "Online retailers, to the extent they are trying to grow aggressively and acquire customers, they want to do it. For those that don't want to respond to customers individually, it's not as popular."

Because the system is based on email, merchants don't even need to have a Web site.

"This is a very simple, efficient, and effective way for buyers and sellers to be introduced to each other," Clemens said.

Nicole Vanderbilt, e-commerce analyst at Jupiter Communications, thinks Respond.com has "eBay-like potential" for being a major success, something not lost on Benchmark, which also funded the person-to-person auction site.

"There are a number of small-scale businesses that have not been able to benefit from the reach of the Web yet," said Vanderbilt, who thinks Respond.com is well suited for specialty dealers and local merchants that don't have Web storefronts yet.

Participating merchants--and Respond.com promises thousands of sellers in thousands of categories when the service is running full speed--pay a monthly fee of under $10 for each category they sign up for. Promotional offers in the beginning may let some get free listings for a limited time, and a fee-per-response may be tacked on at a later time.

An early prototype of the service is in testing mode at Email Shopper.com, although Respond.com said the real service will be more elaborate and sophisticated.

The system is simple. A consumer looking for a particular kind of baseball glove can drill down to the category through "Sports equipment, outdoor," click on "baseball supplies and uniforms," then fill out a form describing the item and any special requests--needed immediately, willing to pay up to a specific price, and so forth. Forms are tailored for each category. Alternately, the shopper can type in "baseball glove" and be taken directly to the specific category.

Respond.com's automated system takes the consumer's form, removes any identifying personal information, and turns it into an email message to merchants signed up for that category. The retailers can delete the email or respond to it by sending the email back to Respond.com, which routes merchant replies to the consumer.

"It's a great model for stores too, to get customer introductions to people who are willing to buy," Clemens enthused.

Clemens claims that Respond.com currently has no direct competitors, but he expects plenty of competition soon, because the idea is so straightforward. His response will be to grow quickly and grab the advantage of being the first service of its kind.

Last month a company called Imandi launched offering to connect consumers to local services such as painters, house cleaners, and roofers as well as to airlines or car rental firms.

"It seems not to be such an enormous opportunity at first blush," said Jupiter's Vanderbilt. "But when you think about the power of aggregating sellers, dealers, merchants, local players, and individuals on the back end for consumers, it can...quickly become a pretty powerful tool."