Six Degrees of Super-Mediation

Looking for IT talent? An obscure part? The bigger the Web gets, the harder it is to find what you're looking for. The solution: a human search engine powered by bounty hunters.

One of the great things about the Web is that it's still growing. Job listings, auction sites, networking opportunities — they're springing up online every day. Unfortunately, such relentless growth is also the curse of the Web. The bigger it gets — a billion pages and counting — the harder it is to find what you're looking for.

The solution, says Allen Davis, isn't another ultra-granular search engine. It's a human search engine powered by new-economy bounty hunters who have as much to gain from your hunt as you do. Whatever the prey — a job candidate, a scarce product or service — the search could be worth a nice reward.

"The next evolution of the Web is going to be 'super-mediation,'" pronounces Davis, 56, a technical recruiter with more than 20 years of experience, most recently as founder and CEO of SoftwareJobs.com. He's not talking about individual mediators, but about a viral Web of scouts and brokers who will use their personal networks to create a chain of online referrals that will grow until the hunted is tracked down and bagged. And the bounty hunter pockets the reward.

At least that's the idea behind BountySystems Inc., the New York-based startup that Davis, the company's chairman, launched last year and that debuted online this fall. Sure, online job boards have made the recruiting process cheaper and more open by eliminating costly mediation, he says. But what they haven't produced is more talent. And companies who post their listings on job boards pay the price for "disintermediation," which produces a flood of unacceptable résumés. Meanwhile, the most-qualified candidates, who are the hardest to find because they have a job and aren't looking for a new one, remain elusive. BountySystems is designed to locate these passive candidates.

Davis's operating logic is based on one simple question: Who is most likely to know the talented people in a particular field? Answer: other talented people in that field. This same thinking is behind many companies' lucrative internal-referral programs, but Davis says that external referrals work better, because they bring more people to the hunt.

Here's how his site works: As a bounty hunter, you browse through BountySystems's job postings in the categories for which you're best qualified to make a referral. Then you simply send the posting to a colleague who you think would be a good candidate for the job. If your pal applies, gets hired, and works through an evaluation period, you receive the bounty.

But what happens if your colleague isn't interested? Davis is counting on the lure of the bounty to get people to pass the listing on to someone else, tapping a wider audience but also drawing in more experts who are most likely to make a successful referral.

Davis thinks that bounties for job candidates are just the beginning. BountySystems, he says, represents the convergence of the open marketplace of auction sites and the ambient knowledge of expertise sites.

Okay. It sounds good. But as with every Great New Web Idea, this one hinges on a couple of unknowns. First, will we spend our precious free time bounty hunting for a reward that may never come? Davis thinks that we will. Free agents have turned networking into an art, he says. Now they have a chance to get paid for it.

As for the rest of us, Davis says that we don't realize how valuable our own contacts could be. "Most people like to give advice," he says. "We do it all the time in the offline world, whether it's about an opening at work or a house for sale in our neighborhood." Unknown number two: Will people offer lucrative enough bounties? They will, says Davis, if they need something badly enough, and in short order. Given the talent squeeze, he says, "the right C++ developer might be worth a $10,000 bounty."

Referral sites such as CareerRewards, goRefer.com, and Referrals.com already feature various reward mechanisms. But so far, most of them focus on recruiting or sales leads only. Davis plans to apply the bounty system to as broad an array of goods and services as the market dictates. And unlike these other referral services, which are stand-alone destination sites, BountySystems will reside on established sites, where it can benefit from existing traffic. FortuneCity and Go2Net are scheduled to unveil BountySystems's service sometime this winter, and negotiations are underway with a major online job board.

Still, without a big-time partner like AOL or Yahoo!, the bounty idea could fizzle like so many other proposed online marketplaces, says Jeff Brody, a partner with Redpoint Ventures, a venture-capital firm in Menlo Park, California. "The hit rate for these ways of connecting people is really low," he says. "It takes a long time and a lot of marketing dollars to educate consumers about how these marketplaces work."

Davis admits that the main obstacle to the online-referral marketplace is that it's new, just as online auctions were new in the days before eBay came along. Still, BountySystems has received $10 million in venture capital, with a more lucrative round in the works. And its system has an impressive pedigree: It was built by LavaStorm Inc., the company responsible for the complex systems used by Web favorites FamilySearch.org and Monster.com.

Meanwhile, BountySystems believers are eagerly awaiting the spread of viral referrals so that they can track down some much-desired prey. For Ben Scharff, vice president of Grace Matthews Inc., the Milwaukee-based investment bank that's helping BountySystems secure funding, that prey is a round of golf on one of the world's most elite courses.

Wanted: A tee time at Augusta National, home of the Masters. Bounty: $3,000. Let the hunt begin.

Contact Allen Davis by email (adavis@bountysystems.com), or visit BountySystems Inc. on the Web (www.bountysystems.com).

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