Winning messages

Limbo auction game invites only cell phone users to play

September 03, 2006|By Abigail Leichman | Abigail Leichman,McClatchy-Tribune

Jonathon Linner saw the future and it was fun.

In December, the 36-year-old entrepreneur started a text-message-based auction game, Limbo 41414. It bears little resemblance to eBay and other online auctions, and not just because you play using a cell phone.

To win a Limbo auction, you have to be the lowest unique bidder. That's how a Salt Lake City woman recently got a $35,000 Hummer H3 for $36.65, less than the cost of filling it up.

"There were a lot of variants of this in India and Europe, based on a lottery game idea," said Linner, "but we thought that wouldn't work here. So we made a different version of the game, and we also wanted it to be more social."

As he expected, the first users were mostly 18-year-old males. But the fun of strategic bidding to knock other players off the lowest number proved tempting for many.

"We're starting to see people doing Limbo parties," he said. The Hummer winner was part of a cluster of friends and relatives who play together every Sunday.

"We've been surprised that it's spread to people who didn't even have cell phones but got one just to play the game," Linner said. "About 20 percent of our members are women over 50, even though most people think that's not a demographic that text messages."

Backed by two venture capital funds, Limbo solicits items from its retail partners on the premise that publicity sells products.

"A lot of people play every day, so from an advertising perspective it's an opportunity to get a product in front of a wide group of people," Linner said. "Even though just one person wins the item, others might still want it, and go out and buy one."

Limbo 41414 has run more than 100 auctions since December, giving out at least $100,000 worth of prizes with winning bids totaling less than $400. In May, a Chicago retiree won a year's worth of maid service for $22.23. A South Dakota man won a 42-inch plasma HDTV for $3.25.

All major carriers participate, sharing the messaging revenue with Limbo. Mobile users, 18 and up, register for free. Most bids are free; some cost 99 cents. Bids may also be made to 877-771-9257 or at 41414.com, but registrants must have a cell phone to join.

A 33-year-old Canadian online gaming expert, Rocky Mirza of Ottawa, launched a similar concept in September. At UniqueAuction.com, it's the highest unique bid that wins - within a low preset range.

Most items are listed with a ceiling bid of about 20 percent of manufacturer's suggested retail price. Users choose amounts between 1 cent and the ceiling price (bids cost $2 for regular members, $1 for platinum members). As the auction continues, the highest unique bid is constantly driven further and further downward.

If every possible number has been selected, the first person who placed the highest number with the least amount of bids wins.

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