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The trading trade

Jon Firmage serves as co-founder and chairman of the board of a new company, but a more apt description might be "matchmaker."

Firmage hails the Salt Lake-based company, Barterfarm, as the first consumer barter network allowing folks to buy, sell, auction or barter both goods and services. What's more, the technology works to match people's "haves" with their "wants," eliminating the need to spend hours browsing.

"We're giving people acquisition power that's not necessarily related to money," Firmage said. "It's related to value."

The site, www.barterfarm.com, launched in early June, already has nearly 3,000 members. A quick look last week found that one member had a baby stroller, an '87 Jetta and computer services available but wanted used computers and brakes. One person offering a "Moulin Rouge" DVD desired a digital projector. An art deco marble clock and a Toyota Sienna were available, too. A person able to baby-sit also was willing to part with a camcorder and guitar but was searching for a storage shed and a desk.

Adding to the allure of the Barterfarm trading platform is the ability to make matches or searches locally as well as throughout the network.

Firmage envisions members buying or auctioning but also exchanging items for services, first hooking up through Barterfarm but carrying on negotiations face to face before completing the transactions.

"There is nothing that we're doing, in and of itself, that is truly new, other than maybe the 'haves' and 'wants' lists," Firmage said. "We've aggregated things that are existing and brought them together. It's a new way to connect."

The matching system — which Firmage calls a "dating service for your stuff" — can search within the same state or country where the member lives to locate a match and even create three-way matches.

"I asked myself in 1997: 'Where do you go to trade what you have for what you want?' " he said. "Most of us have more wants and/or needs than the money we have can satisfy."

In addition to creating a locally based yet far-reaching barter network, Barterfarm is trying a new business model in order to make money. Unlike a site like eBay, Barterfarm is working with others who will become partners and establish their own independent and privately labeled trade sites that will be "powered" by Barterfarm.

Those partners — expected to be universities, entrepreneurs, companies, nonprofit organizations, church groups — will market their site to people they know. Members can sign up with Barterfarm or the partners. Membership revenue from people using partner sites will be split by Barterfarm and the partner 50-50.

The arrangement is designed to provide use of the entire Barterfarm network, but with a local link.

"It's a way to communitize the 'Net," Firmage said. "When you connect to one partner site, through Barterfarm.com, every partner site is connected to other partner sites — a member of one, access to all.

"People are loyal to their church, their alma mater, their friends, their families, their communities, and 50 percent of the money goes to them. People would be supporting them while also getting something of value."

So far, Barterfarm has signed up about 200 partners. "When people see what we've done, it's a no-brainer," Firmage said. "There's nothing else like this in the world."

Firmage believes a partner site specializing in used video games would be popular. Others might focus on model train enthusiasts, wine lovers or car fans. They can boost their visibility by hosting barter events such as a CD swap night for university students. "You'd be able to see who's going to be there and what they have," he said.

Firmage said competitor barter sites may come along, but eBay likely is too entrenched in its business model — making money from auction transaction fees rather than membership — to change.

"This is one of those things that seems so basic, that it's surprising it hasn't been done. It's been technically possible to do this for five years, but it hasn't been probable," he said.

"I'm thankful to eBay, because when they launched, they had a unique challenge to build an Internet commerce platform when the Web was being proliferated to the public. We sit on their shoulders because they've already trained 52 million people how to use online commerce systems, be it auction or whatever. People know how to do it."

Barterfarm, with 10 full-time employees and launched through funding provided by friends and family, now tracks anywhere from 500 to 1,000 negotiations among members each month. Firmage predicts that membership by the end of this year will be 10,000 to 20,000. By the end of 2004, he's predicting a little less than 100,000.

Several partners also believe in the potential for growth.

Steve Rausch of St. George has put together www.sunbelt

barter.com as a way to serve the interests of contractors, builders and suppliers in the construction industry. "It will be the place to barter, buy, sell or auction materials and services they work with, which is enormous," he said.

So far it has about 25 members, but he expects that to rise quickly.

"You realize there is an enormous gap in the barter and trade industry in general and that eBay has certainly proven it can be profitable in the auction space," Rausch said. "For businesses and individuals who have things to barter, buy or trade, I saw the writing on wall, and I knew these (Barterfarm) guys had something different."

Rausch has used the site himself, trading some DVDs, offering up a piano and having someone offer some tile for some sod he owned. "But it turned out it was not the type of tile I was looking for," he said.

Jason Todd's www.redtrader.

net is being marketed at University of Utah students looking to trade textbooks for tutoring or to buy, sell or trade skis, snowboards and electronics. Homesellers and service providers in the Salt Lake area also are among the 440 members.

Todd himself has traded a music video for a golf club he wanted and sold an Aerosmith box set.

"And someone offered to give me back rubs for a year and a jacket for an '88 Ford Ranger with a broken-down transmission," he said, adding that he declined. "They had the right idea, but the currency was completely off.

"Most people just have a garage sale with all their stuff, but now they can just leave it online and one by one add things as people buy or trade with you."

Bill Hoops of West Jordan is working with www.wolverine

trader.net, establishing the site as a way for Utah Valley State College students to easily exchange textbooks.

"I think about how easy it's going to be when I get to the end of the semester and put down the five books I own and put down the five I need and the system will hook me up with people that have things I need or need things I have," Hoops said.

Elden Goldsmith of Templeton, Calif., put together www.centralcoastbarter.com and made a trade for his BMW. He sees the site as a place offering lots of home and garden construction equipment and real estate.

He was intrigued initially by the online barter system — "That's the way our economy started, to trade things" — but was even more impressed by the matching technology.

"The cost for the average Joe is $60, and they can list 60 items. Whether it's real estate, cars or a multimillion-dollar boat, it doesn't matter. It's just 60 bucks," he said.

In addition to making a few bucks or good trades himself, Rausch figures he'll enjoy the give-and-take of negotiation.

"People need to realize that barter and trade is a lot of fun," he said. "It's an experience beyond going out to Sam's Club and putting things in a basket. That's kind of boring."


E-MAIL: bwallace@desnews.com