There is a certain formula that has become popular for setting up online businesses, and it goes something like this:
Take something that's already being done without the aid of the Internet -- selling raccoon coats, delivering anchovy pizzas, searching the archives of Sludge World today. Set up a Web site that will let people do it online. Buy a good URL. Announce to the world that the business of (fill in the billion-dollar category) will be revolutionized by your new dot-com company.
Occasionally, however, someone comes up with an idea for a Net service that simply doesn't have any real parallel in the offline world. Ideas in this category tend to sound wacky at first, but then, as you turn them over in your mind and play with them, they grow on you.
Returnme.com, a Web site that recently launched, falls squarely into that category of "hmmm, nobody really did this before the Internet" ideas. The Returnme.com concept works like this:
Customers buy 10 stickers for 10 bucks -- stickers that they can affix to any possessions that they are afraid to lose. Each sticker (or "etag," as Returnme calls them) is printed with the Returnme.com URL, a unique identification number, and instructions that explain that anyone who finds this object should go to the Web site to arrange for a pickup. Returnme.com clients can offer a reward for their property's safe return. The company gets the item from the finder, ships it to the person who lost it and pays the promised reward on behalf of the owner. It's a kind of an Internet lost and found.
It is hard to imagine that Returnme.com will ever be quite as big as, say, Amazon.com. But the neat thing about this Web site is that it really is revolutionizing the business of the lost and found, simply because before Returnme launched there was no business of the lost and found.
I am not sure if I am precisely Returnme.com's perfect customer. I do lose things, but mostly the things I lose are keys, and they might be a little too small for the Returnme.com tags. Elliot Klein, the founder of the company, thinks the main users will be road warriors equipped with Palm Pilots and cell phones -- the little, valuable trappings of the technophile lifestyle. (Klein says he came up with the idea after losing his own Palm Pilot.) I don't have either of those -- though I do have a small laptop, and might put a tag on that. Offering a reward that's too big might be an incentive for someone to steal tagged items; then again, the chance of getting something back that isn't marked with a tag is more or less zip.
One could imagine a similar business without the Internet, with a toll-free number instead of a Web site. But it's hard to imagine someone like Klein -- a former vice president of American Express -- quitting his day job to run it. This would have been too bad, because the idea deserves to be tried, for its charm as well as its potential utility. I often hear loud complaints about the surfeit of Internet hype; it is nice to think that all the hype has resulted in more than a few gray-suited executives deserting their offices to try things that two years ago would have been too strange and original for serious business people.