Sunday, January 15, 2006 becomes OnForce, a computer services marketplace, recently changed its name to OnForce in response to concerns that its name limited the types of services available for bid on its website. The marketplace, who boasts 12,000+ available service providers, seeks to obtain the lowest possible price on computer services for its client base consisting mainly of large national computer superstores like CompUSA; downline service aggregators and large multi-state companies.

OnForce's customer is required to prepay a minimum dollar amount and then submit auctions blindly to geographic specific set of service technicians. OnForce hopes to capitalize on the glut of available independent computer technicians displaced by outsourcing, the dot-com bust and layoffs - who are willing to bid on submitted service requests ---> Technicians are rated by customers much like an eBay seller would be. On paper this sounds really great for the consumer but not so great for the service provider depending on who you talk to. If history is anything to go by, this is the same problem experienced by others in the marketplace game in recent years.
As the owner of EveryMethod Mobile Computing and with an obvious bias, this business model interests me and scares me at the same time. The concept of an aggregation marketplace, already discredited by the countless B2B auctions crushed by demand side problems, is being resurrected and unleashed on thousands of unsuspecting and inexperienced independent entrepreneurs. The comparison to software development marketplaces, which are one of the few aggregators to gain traction, is predictable but flawed. Two immediate differences are obvious:

- Remote software developers who have a direct relationship with the bidder vs. a multi tiered model consisting of a consumer of the service; an OnForce customer and service provider. The natural tendency is always for the consumer and the providers to want to exclude the intermediary; so the only reason for that not to happen is if the marketplace can provide intrinsic value but how hard is it to locate your own computer guy anyway? Who is OnForce working for anyway? A good question!

- Continuity is everything and the scope of work is normally not well defined due to inexperience of the consumer. This causes expectation problems which is the crux of a failed relationship.

However, despite these issues more indie entreneurs who are attempting to capitalize on a solid market opportunity are graduating from certification mills in droves. Only to realize that this business like any other, requires capital, finance and marketing skills to be successful - not technical savvy. Attracted by easy business [u win or accept a job by clicking a link in a text or an email before other interested parties get to it] or simply desperate, they are accepting flat rate service requests (as low as $25 but usually $55 and up) for strictly defined jobs like replacing a hard drive or installing and configuring a router. Most are doing it to fill in the time between their own gigs - problem number three!

The fact that they are behaving much like an autoimmune disease which simply attacks it's host, seems to escape independents on masse - and the initial dissent, which showed up rather quickly on the OnForce message boards have disappeared - the questions this poses are numerous. Technicians are restricted by an OnForce stipulation that an attempt to contact the end-user after the repair will result in a poor rating. Technicians are paid by OnForce - not the customer and not by the consumer of the service. YIKES!! I suppose OnForce is really a contract recruiter needing to churn thousands of work orders to make money.

We believe that OnForce is driving down the value of our service and if you are really paying attention, their strategy is an insult to an occupation that takes years of experience to truly master. I'm not holding on to archaic visions I promise you - I don't dispute the fact current practice of billing hourly will eventually be replaced with a more enlightened pricing strategy; but driving the hourly price down is not the answer for anyone. The consumer gets shitty service and we get the shaft. A recipe for failure in my opinion.

The market opportunity for us is boggling with 200 million computers in homes on the brink of turning into control rooms. OnForce knows this and has good money riding on these numbers- but I hope we as an industry can think bigger. I'll be ranting about this and other issues soon.