Waiting for his ship to come in

Associated Press

SPOKANE — There’s eBay. It’s stuffed with merchandise for sale, has millions of Web visitors daily, and it cleared $23 million in profits last year.

Then there’s ePier. The Spokane-based online auction site has a few thousand visitors a day. It generates no income yet, and it’s costing its founder, James Kim, about $6,000 a month in expenses.

Kim, 30, doesn’t pretend that his first start-up business will muscle its way to the top ranks of Web auctions. He just wants some of that action.

"Our goal for now is to become one of the top two dozen auction sites," said Kim, who founded ePier in 1998 and launched it in July.

Kim graduated from Mead High School in 1988 and earned a biology degree from Pomona College in Los Angeles. He worked nine months at Stanford’s research center.

"I learned that research and academics don’t fit my personality," he said.

After returning to Spokane, he took a few computer classes at Spokane Falls Community College.

When the Internet boomed around 1994, Kim decided to develop a user-friendly business Web site. By 1998 he had registered about 60 different Web domain names, including ePier.

"A pier is a place for ships to unload or take on cargo. And I figured any name with an "E" in front of it had to be worth something," he said.

He moved the company to a duplex he purchased on North Regal, two blocks west of Spokane Community College.

Kim then hired two full- and five part-time workers to prepare to launch ePier. One programmer, 23-year-old Eric Schaller, took a job at ePier for the challenge of working in a new company.

"It’s got great moments, and it can also be frustrating," said Schaller.

Kim figures he’s invested about $250,000 of his own money in the project so far. Additional funding came from his parents, he said.

"We’re at a crucial stage right now," Kim said. He’s looking for an investment from venture capitalists in the region to bring on additional staff and to market the company. "We’d accept as little as $240,000, or as much as between $1 and $2 million," Kim said.

He sees signs that ePier will continue to grow. Since launching in July, visitor traffic has grown 15-fold, he said. That’s occurred by word of mouth. Kim hasn’t advertised.

Revenue could come in several ways, Kim said. He hopes to establish Web site exchanges and banner ads on ePier for other businesses.

EPier’s current item list is heavy on coins, stamps and collectibles.

Kim would like to recruit advertising from companies selling similar products, such as trading cards or sports memorabilia. He’s also developing a subscription plan.

For a yet-undetermined monthly fee, ePier subscribers would gain features and benefits to assist their Web experience, Kim said.

On eBay, anyone selling an item through auction ends up paying eBay a fractional fee. They also face assorted insertion and listing fees, depending on the type of item sold. EPier doesn’t have any seller fees.

"That’s one thing we’re doing to give our sellers an advantage. A seller who doesn’t have to pay a fee is able to accept a lower price and still make money," Kim said.

If ePier starts generating money, Kim admits his company’s small size will play a key role.

EBay has so much traffic now that bidders are competing against themselves, Kim said. The result is they’re paying nearly market prices when the whole point of an auction is to find good deals, he added.

Because ePier has fewer overall bidders than big sites like eBay, visitors at ePier are more likely to find great deals, Kim said.

What the site needs, however, are more than the current 500-some sellers.

"We need to gain business and attract more visitors," Kim said. Though he’s a business novice, Kim said he’s gone through a two-year crash course in Start-up 101.

"A lot of what I’m doing I learned by looking at other places online," he said. "The Net is a great resource."

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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