Opinion: Worth a stamp of approval

Stamps.com CEO Ken McBride sees every reason to believe that his company's "personalized postage" program can take a licking and keep on sticking.

What he needs is for the U.S. Postal Service to view things the same way, which might require officials there to don corrective lenses to see beyond a particularly embarrassing public relations episode.

Either way, things could be worse: Eight years after company founders began pondering the problems inherent in providing U.S. postage securely over the Internet, Stamps.com recently posted its first quarterly profit - 3 cents per share. While McBride told Wall Street that the milestone would have been reached with or without the much-publicized, wildly popular and at least temporarily suspended PhotoStamps program, there can be no mistaking what's at stake for his company as postal officials ponder the future of those stamps.

Consider these numbers from the seven-and-a-half-week PhotoStamps trial:

More than 400 news stories and 260 broadcast reports - priceless marketing for a small public company - chronicled the near-overnight success of PhotoStamps, which was embraced by all manner of consumers looking to put pictures of their choosing on their postage.

About 2.6 million PhotoStamps were sold: 130,000 sheets of 20 stamps apiece.

Thirty thousand of those sheets were ordered in the final 24 hours of the experiment as buyers scrambled to get their stamps after the program's impending suspension was publicized.

The Postal Service reaped more than $1 million in revenue.

But then there was that smoking gun - www.thesmokinggun.com. Best known for posting mug shots and court documents of the famous and infamous, the site scored a direct hit on PhotoStamps by publicizing its success in ordering PhotoStamps that depicted the likes of accused Yugoslavian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, executed spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and the high school yearbook photo of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.

Not exactly the images one has come to associate with postage. PhotoStamps was supposed to introduce a smattering of wedding photos and baby pictures in among the historical figures and cultural icons. A rogues' gallery was not supposed to be part of the bargain.

"We actually filtered through 83,000 images in seven and a half weeks, so nine (inappropriate images) out of 83,000 is the number that were misclassified and that's 99.99 percent accuracy, which we think is very, very good accuracy for a human-being-based process."

That's right, human-based. All that stood between the pranksters at The Smoking Gun and that phalanx of philatelic felons was a trio of Stamps.com employees whose job it was to weed out inappropriate orders.

"Some of the more obscure infamous images were a little bit tougher to catch," McBride says.

Example: Monica Lewinsky's blue dress got through, too. However, McBride notes that the low-tech security breach occurred early on in the trial run and was not repeated, giving him - and he hopes the Postal Service - confidence that a recurrence is unlikely.

The Postal Service is expected to decide by year-end whether PhotoStamps will get a second chance.

"We view it as there being two potential outcomes of this process: One is there's another market test for some period of time, which would probably be a year or maybe even longer than that. The other would be that there is no PhotoStamps," McBride says. "We just think it's probably too big of a step to go from a very short market test that we have done already to permanent approval."

The Postal Service really ought to green-light this one: After all, the stamp world hasn't seen this kind of excitement since Skinny Elvis vs. Fat Elvis.

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