The Undiscovered Country

Most Internet start-ups to date have focused on reaching people and businesses that already use the Internet. That sounds logical, but there’s a world of Internet opportunity beyond the obvious. The time has come to scout out this undiscovered country., which recently moved from Fullerton to Marina Del Rey, Calif., is among the pioneers.

Ajay Shah of Handshake said the company started by purchasing a database of service companies throughout the U.S. and putting that online. Then the team began trying to contact those companies – housecleaning firms, pest control outfits and massage therapists, among others. They began in their Orange County base, and now they’re planning on going nationwide.

These kinds of businesses have long had every manner of salesman offering to bring them work for money, so Handshake offered a different proposition: We’ll bring you work free. In fact, their introduction to a business usually comes with an order in hand.

“When a consumer inputs a job request we’ll send an email or fax to the merchant, giving them the ability to respond,” he said. “If there’s no response, we’ll actually call and re-introduce ourselves, indicating what Handshake is about” and getting a price quote.

By buying its database first, Handshake was able to find four different cleaning services just within my low-income Atlanta neighborhood. By using fax and telephone when requests enter the system, Handshake makes each contact with a merchant a positive experience.

That’s all nice, but it won’t pay Handshake’s bills. So Shah has two pay services to offer.

Instead of asking a single merchant for a bid, a consumer could enter their needs and take bids from all area merchants, for a nominal fee of just a few dollars. A second route to money is to collect pricing data from merchants and quote those prices online, handling scheduling and billing for a transaction fee of about $10 per order.

The Orange County roll-out was three months ago, supported only by banner ads (everyone’s favorite whipping boy these days). Shah said he is pleased to be getting 1,500 unique visitors per day through those banners. The next step is a redesign, due January 25, and a larger ad campaign, including offline media.

Giving people business for nothing, and easing that collection of business for a nominal fee, is a proposition any consumer or business can probably accept. But where is all this going – will eventually become something like Servicemaster, a trademark or franchise?

Shah said that’s not his business plan. “The road consumers want us to take is to become a consumers’ virtual concierge,” he said. That means becoming what Shah called a “Zagat’s Guide for All Services.” Consumers will be encouraged to offer their reviews of service provided through the site, and that will build the database, he said.

Handshake also rejected the idea of certifying merchants. Let consumers certify through their reviews, Shah said. That’s the eBay approach.

The point I’m making today is that anyone who says all niches are full, or all business concepts have been found, is just not thinking hard enough. There are many niches out there, and plenty of ways you can compete against firms like Handshake who have just entered this undiscovered country.

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