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Bestcalls.com Tries To Level Playing Field for Investors

One of the biggest hazards to individual investors is the officially sanctioned and institutionalized hypocrisy that tilts the playing field in favor of large institutions. Big institutions and brokerages have long tipped off their biggest customers to the latest news, offering them the first chance to cash in on inside information before it eventually sifts down to the poor schmuck struggling with the family portfolio.

One of the greatest abuses of trust for individual investors lies in their exclusion from earnings conference calls: those cozy little exclusive telephone chats where companies talk to a few analysts and key investors and clue them in on the latest scoop, thus giving them the precious head start they need to start trading shares before the average shareholder even has an inkling that something is happening.

Mark Coker thought that while this unseemly practice may still be legal, it is ethically wrong and terribly one-sided and so he wrapped his cause in a Web site BestCalls.com which allows subscribers to track the conference call schedules of hundreds of publicly traded companies.

Coker, a Silicon Valley investor and public relations expert who founded Dovetail Public Relations in Los Gatos, Calif., launched BestCalls.com on March 22, with his brother Doug, who is a computer science student at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Coker bootstrapped the new business with about $100,000 of his own money including the proceeds of a stock he dumped after the company refused his admission to the conference call.

"The genesis for BestCalls.com came in 1997, when I asked to attend the conference call for Legato, and was refused access," said Mark Coker. "They wouldn't even let me listen to the replay. I was extremely frustrated by this, because I believe that any investor, whether they own 1 share or 1 million -- I owned 3,000 of Legato at the time -- deserves equal access to material, market-moving information. I told Legato they were engaging in selective disclosure by denying me access. They didn't budge."

"So I sold the stock and formulated the idea to create BestCalls.com," he said. "On the surface, I visualized it as a public directory of conference calls that permitted individual investors to attend. But underneath the covers, it was a cause wrapped in Web site's clothing. The cause is to educate the masses of individual investors that conference calls represent one of the best sources of fundamental research information.

"Based on my previous IR experience, and my experience speaking with other individual investors, I came to the conclusion that 95 percent of individual investors didn't even know about conference calls, and that fewer than 1 percent had ever asked to attend. I believed that once the masses were informed about conference calls, and once they learned they were being excluded, they would rise up in a revolution of sorts so that companies that permitted access would benefit by attracting more shareholders and companies that excluded individuals would suffer by either failing to attract individuals or by losing them as shareholders. So companies that implemented fair and progressive shareholder communications strategies would benefit and companies who did not would suffer. And underneath all this, my mission is to level the playing field for all investors by causing a fundamental shift in how companies conduct their investor communications."

The cause seems to be paying off. While profits from his public relations firm have been incubating BestCalls.com, Coker says he thinks it will be profitable as a standalone entity within the next two or three months thanks to some distribution and licensing agreements that are in the works. He said he has 44,000 registered users and that site traffic is as high as 40,000 page views per day.

"We do not need capital at this time since theburn rate is very low, but we would entertain offers from the right partners."

The Internet clearly has upset the clubby, walnut-paneled board rooms of the Wall Street good ole' boys what with online trading and day traders knocking the old guard for a loop. In this arena of shifting power, BestCalls.com could very well become the next overdue and well-needed kick in the rear.

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