New on-line service lists business opportunities

June 26, 1994|By The Christian Science Monitor

BOSTON -- Not long ago, Maben Smith went looking for a business. He already had sold two small, successful companies and was interested in buying a manufacturing firm in New Jersey. He contacted a business broker and told him what he was looking for. Sometime later, the broker called to say he had found the perfect fit: a firm that makes Swiss herbal remedies.

"I was so frustrated," Mr. Smith says. "This was not the company I was looking for. It wasn't even a manufacturing firm."

When he was unable to find a magazine or journal listing small and medium-sized businesses for sale, Mr. Smith decided to do something about the problem himself. He says he first thought of publishing a magazine but concluded that by the time the listings were printed, they would already be out-of-date.

"So I decided to skip a step and go electronic," Mr. Smith says.

The result is Business Opportunities Online, an electronic multiple-listing service that started this month. The service links small-business owners in search of buyers, buyers in search of businesses, franchises for sale, financiers looking for good business investments and businesspeople seeking financing.

Business Opportunities Online is accessible with a personal computer, modem and credit card; there is a $10 hourly on-line charge, as well as some additional charges. For those without access to a PC with communications capabilities, customer-service representatives provide access over the phone.

"The thing that bothered me was that there was key information I wanted to get my hands on, but it was controlled by a third party," Mr. Smith says. "We say: 'Here's the information, help yourself to it, sort it, and read it however you want.' "

He adds, "I want to see the information myself when I'm looking for a business. I don't want someone to show me a couple of files out of a file drawer. But I'm not trying to do away with business brokers. I'm trying to enhance their service."

Whether or not entrepreneurs looking to buy or sell a business will have the time and skills necessary to learn an on-line system remains to be seen, says Tom West, editor and publisher of a newsletter from the International Business Brokers Association in Concord, Mass.

"Conceptually and operationally, I think it's very interesting," Mr. West says.

"If [Business Opportunities Online] can get an entrepreneur, who may be computer illiterate, to sit down and learn the program, then it will be a great service."

The concept of the business broker who tries to keep information close to the chest is outdated, Mr. West says. Putting a business on-line does not mean bypassing the business broker, he adds.

"This is one more way to get a business exposed," Mr. West says.

Mr. Smith says the service respects the fact that business information is often sensitive. Users interested in selling a firm are presented with 27 different questions when they log into the system, but they are only required to answer four: What does the business do? Where is it located?; What is the size of the business? And what is the best way to contact the company?

Business Opportunities Online hopes to have 1,000 businesses listed by December. "Within 12 to 24 months, we expect 10,000 to 15,000 businesses for sale on the system, and we would like to see several thousand capital providers," Mr. Smith says.

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