SAN MATEO (07/03/2000) - In the mid-1990s, Web marketing techie Charles Cohen belonged to some twenty-odd consumer points programs. He collected gas-station points, grocery-store points, movie-rental points, and so on. His wallet was jammed with little plastic cards that tracked the accumulation of these points and periodically rewarded him with gas, discounted food, or a complimentary rental film.
Cohen realized that these so-called loyalty cards, which individually weren't worth much, would be quite valuable if consolidated, and eureka! He came up with an idea for a standard point system that would have, in his words, "the spending power of money for consumers but customer behavior tracking and incentive features for businesses."
In 1998 Cohen founded Beenz.com Inc., a New York-based company that mints "beenz," a global e-currency worth approximately half a cent per unit. Online merchants use beenz to pay consumers for completing tasks online such as visiting Web sites, filling out customer satisfaction surveys, or shopping. In turn, consumers use these beenz to purchase goods or services from any e-vendor that accepts beenz. To date, nearly 2 million consumers collect beenz, and over 1 billion beenz are circulating worldwide.
"We charge one cent for every beenz that we mint," Cohen explains, "and we pay a half cent for every beenz that is spent by a consumer. And that's it."
Pretty simple. Companies purchase beenz to use as customer bait. These beenz attract collectors who use them to buy goods from the same or other vendors, who then sell them back to beenz.com. Some sites only give beenz away, some only accept them as payment, and some do both. The idea is the same behind all three approaches: draw and retain the attention of online consumers.
Creating beenz was no small task: It entailed developing a purely digital, globally acceptable currency that accounted for international exchange rates.
Cohen and colleagues designed beenz.com's infrastructure using Oracle database servers and Sun Microsystems hardware, and in March 1999 they launched beenz.com in the United Kingdom and United States. Since then, beenz.com has expanded from a three-man operation to a 250-person corporation with offices in North America, Europe, and the Asian Pacific region.
Before founding beenz.com, Cohen was an account executive at Band & Brown Communications in London, where he founded Thought Interactive in 1996, a company that creates and implements Web marketing and site management technologies. During his years at B&B and Thought Interactive, Cohen managed the execution of e-business strategies for many large companies and developed a specialty in Web marketing and e-commerce technology. Previously, he served in the House of Commons as a speechwriter and policy advisor.
That may seem like an eclectic series of experiences, but Cohen credits it for much of his present success at beenz.com. "Every day I see another thing that I learned when I was doing PR or politics or speeches. And I think, wow, that was really good learning. But of course you don't think so at the time," he says.
One of the most important lessons that Cohen has learned at beenz.com is that when dealing with consumers, he must not think like a techie. "The easiest thing in the world is to build navigation for yourself because you know your way around the system," he explains, "but people will use the site in a different way from you, and you didn't build it for you, you built it for them."
As a result, beenz.com has gone through approximately six major overhauls to be "more about the consumer," according to Cohen. He says that the latest home page is designed to be very visitor-friendly, or, in his words, "bleeding obvious." Visitors are given a few very clear choices, such as: "open your free account" (to start collecting), "earn" (to find sites that distribute beenz), and "spend" (to find sites that accept beenz as payment).
Visitors can locate beenz trading sites through the beenz.com Web site or through Internet advertising banners that display the beenz logo.
As CTO, Cohen's role has changed almost as many times as the Web site. He explains that, "at the beginning of beenz, when it was just me and two other guys doing all the coding, my technical involvement was huge. Now that beenz has such a massive infrastructure, my technical input is more strategic than practical."
As with many emerging companies, it is difficult to separate the technological functions of beenz.com from its business operations. For example, the company is now preparing to roll out the site in 15different languages: "This is a tactical and strategic business decision that needs to be made at the technical level," Cohen says. Because of the widespread commingling of business and technology, Cohen believes that "many CTOs will move from behind the scenes to become the entrepreneurs."
In June 2000 Cohen himself was appointed chairman and CEO of beenz.com. This joint CTO/CEO title may be rare today, but Cohen predicts we'll see more of it in the future. Although he calls his lack of formal business training "a hindrance," Cohen does not mind relying on his colleagues with business experience and MBAs, such as Chief Administrative Officer Sean Lane, COO Don McGuire, and CFO Stephen Limpe for assistance with day-to-day business operations. "No one person can know everything or do everything, so it's not too bad" Cohen says. As CEO, Cohen will continue to concentrate on product development and strategy.
For instance, Cohen is behind the product development that allows consumers to use beenz anywhere they see the MasterCard logo. Users can download their beenz onto a single debit card -- the realization of Cohen's initial vision -- and spend them in the physical world. "You can basically go anywhere and if you've got 10 bucks' worth of beenz,you can spend 10 bucks," Cohen says.
With this growing flexibility and market presence of beenz, Cohen's moment of inspiration is quickly becoming a global reality. He attributes this growth to great business partners and to his own willingness to share his vision -- and profits -- with his colleagues at beenz.com, whom Cohen calls his mentors.
Success, he says, is largely a function of how much you're willing to give away. "A lot of people have a cool idea, but they think it's so cool they want to hold on to 90 percent of it. These people won't get anywhere."
Charles Cohen, beenz.com
Title: CTO, chairman, and CEO
Reports to: Board of directors
Mission: beenz everywhere!
Education: Oxford University, 1992, B.S. in politics, philosophy, and economicsCareer path: 1992-94: Speechwriter and policy advisor at British House of Commons; 1994-96: Account executive at Band & Brown Communications; 1996:
Founded Thought Interactive, a B&B subsidiary that develops and implements Web marketing and management technologiesMentor: My colleaguesBiggest challenge: Globalizing beenz.com quickly and coherentlyFavorite e-business site: letsbuyit.comFavorite escape: PlayStation.