A fisher of Net startups

A fisher of Net startups is not an online card game. It's a business-to-business exchange company for the seafood industry. The company was founded three names ago, in 1985, on the working waterfront in Portland, Maine.

Today, is a born-again startup, doing commerce on the Internet. Yes, it's what we call a `dot-com', located in Maine but with Silicon Valley venture capitalists and an IPO in mind.

I don't often offer punditry about dot-coms. Not about business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), consumer-to-business (C2B), or consumer-to-consumer (C2C) dot-coms. It's not really my job to help you find fresh fish. So forget fish and hear the B2B story of

Once upon a time, Neal Workman wanted to be president of Dun & Bradstreet (D&B). But they sent him to Portland, Maine.

So in 1985, Workman founded Debt Management Services, a collection agency for fishermen. He showed up in far-flung offices to get fish buyers to pay their bills. Reminds me of my years breaking the legs of Ethernet deadbeats.

In 1987, Workman started avoiding rather than collecting from deadbeats. He started faxing credit reports to fishermen out of his database of buyers. He renamed his company Seafax.

For the next 10 years, Workman sold company reports, a credit appraisal index, and accounts-receivable protection services. Because buyers of fish often buy other perishables, he started offering credit services to, for example, poultry packers. Then he began offering his database to anyone wanting to sell anything to credit-worthy fish buyers. Revenues exceeded $4 million per year.

In 1997, Workman took Seafax online. In 1998, he invested $1 million to get on the Internet. In 1999, he began delivering daily news wires and posting fish market information via the Web.

Workman is now the head of, `the world's premiere online source for seafood industry information'. He started taking transactions in November and posted $1 million in December.

Peter Murray, formerly of Next Software, leads the software team. uses Apple's WebObjects to release new fixes and features every Friday night - `fast, furious, and fun'. not only connects buyers and sellers, but also ensures credit.

One challenge is rating product quality - not all frozen blocks of haddock are the same. Another is collecting the 1 to 2 per cent transaction fee after a buyer and seller have been introduced.

Workman is raising tens of millions to finance his doubling company. He is moving to open offices down the street. He is offering stock options to his employees. is a full dot-com.

Of course many B2B exchanges are cropping up on the Internet. There are whole books on the subject - for example, B2B Exchanges: The Killer Application in the Business-to-Business Internet Revolution, by Arthur Sculley and William Woods.

Sculley and Woods lay out seven secrets of success with exchange examples from paper, plastics, metals, shipping, credit, risk, chemicals, electricity, and research supplies.


Now my favourite question is, how do you keep secret friends from manipulating markets by selling rotten fish to one another at inflated prices - you know, the way they sell dot-com stocks on the exchanges in New York?

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe invites you to bookmark his column archive at

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