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E-Congo Aims to Make E-Commerce Friendly

"This devoted band called itself the Eldorado Exploring Expedition, and I believe they were sworn to secrecy. Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe."

-- Chapter One, Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

Many e-tailers find that getting their e-commerce operation working involves an experience much like that of the ship Nellie's crew making their way through the dark jungles of the unknown. More than one prospective e-business owner in search of Eldorado has had to deal with the e-quivalent of Mr. Kurtz and those around him who were "reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage."

eCongo founder and CEO Rick Asturias thinks e-commerce should not be a jungle filled with "Sand-banks, marshes, forests, savages...." but should be easy and free. ECongo is not alone: competitors BigStep.Com and freemerchant.com are already paddling up the same river with 13,000 and 10,000 small business customers respectively. Asturias said eCongo now has about 1,000 merchants and expects the number to accelerate rapidly as they refine the beta-version that launched in August.

Asturias and co-founder/CTO Eugene Engelgau are betting that the ease of their browser-based configuration and administration system -- fewer sandbars and mosquitoes, as it were -- will ultimately give it the competitive edge. The company's profit model is built around offering a basic set of free services and then selling premium services to those who want them. The free version, for example, does not include credit card transactions -- a premium charge. It also supports its operations by selling advertising (they sell 80% of page views and merchants can sell or trade the remainder).

The notoriously frustrating experience of obtaining a merchant account to accept credit cards will be easier for eCongo merchants because the site has an agreement with Cardservice International to expedite the process. The process is a bit more expensive than average -- $39.95 per month and $0.30 per transaction with eCongo getting an undisclosed share of the revenues.

eCongo's browser-based interface resembles a minimalist version of that provided by Yahoo! Store with a more limited choice of templates. Engelgau said that new templates and choices are being provided as they develop beyond the beta-version. It also stores purchase and other data about customers so that the merchant can target e-mail promotions and specials to specific target groups.

While free may be great for merchants and companies like eCongo, it's definitely not good news for the people who thought they were going to make money from it. Free e-commerce sites are just the latest profit-model-buster to hit the Internet and will undoubtedly have a financial impact on ISPs and portals charging hundreds of dollars per month for comparable services. Yahoo! Store, for example, charges a minimum of $100 per month for no more than 50 products. In three years, it has signed up 5,800 merchants -- about a quarter of what the free competition has nailed down in less than six months.

In addition, eCongo has thrown a life-ring to resource-strapped ISPs dog-paddling up stream in their own river of darkness trying to set up e-commerce software forclients. On October 26, the company announced a co-branded service, FreeCommerce Builder, for ISPs and others with a large base of small business customers who want to offer eCongo's services. The FreeCommerce Builder service is free and gives ISPs and others the ability to offer up to 1,000 free web stores that are hosted and managed on eCongo's servers. eCongo splits the revenue (it keeps 70%) from premium services with its co-branding partners and maintains complete control over advertising that appears on the pages.

Asturias and Englegau have seed-funded the venture and its 25 people so far, using the profits from their previous venture together, SuperBusiness NET. They would not say how much they have invested, but did say they expect to close their first venture capital round by December.

Online commerce for the masses is at about the same stage as desktop publishing was 15 years ago when filling a frame on a page of text required a computer science degree and a lot of luck. The evolution of free services such as eCongo and its competitors should go a long way toward migrating etailers to the no-brainer, "I'm there!" stage from its current level of being a "flabby, pretending, weak-eyed devil of a rapacious and pitiless folly."

"The horror, the horror," may no longer be the e-tailers mantra.


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