Meishi (pronounced "may shee") is the Japanese word for "business card" and its elaborate, decorous exchange ritual. Meishi 's exact opposite is Jigsaw, a fast-growing, very American online market that lets people trade their business contacts for more contacts or cash. Jigsaw.com's premise is simple. Every time you enter someone's info on its site, you get 10 points—enough to "buy" two contacts from Jigsaw's database. People who enter at least 25 contacts a month become members free of charge; those who don't want to surrender their address books pay $25 a month to access 25 contacts.
The service is stirring up equal measures of buzz and vitriol. Jigsaw.com has attracted more than 60,000 registered users as of April and has a collection of almost 3 million names. Why the anger? Jigsaw doesn't notify people when they've been added to its listings. So a lot of unsuspecting people have their business-card info on Jigsaw, and when they find out, they're furious that it's publicly available—and at a price. Worse, once you're on the site, it won't let you remove yourself. The most you can do is add preferences to your contact page, such as, "I don't respond to unsolicited email and phone calls." CEO and cofounder Jim Fowler dismisses the concerns, saying the service is simply an easier way for salespeople to trade business cards—something they've always done.
Despite the controversy, the idea has already won over a large number of sales and business-development executives, as well as recruiters, job seekers, and researchers, because it makes it easy to search for contacts based on name, company, location, job category, and business size. Dan Staringer, a senior recruiter at Fortinet, a computer security firm, uses Jigsaw to find prospective candidates, and loves being able to reach people directly rather than having to go through an elaborate permission chain as he does on a competitive service such as LinkedIn.
Jigsaw can be a way to get your foot in the door without hacking through a thicket of gatekeepers when trying to make a deal. But it can also be its own time sink: Our experience revealed that only slightly more than half of its contacts are up-to-date (Fowler estimates that Jigsaw's data is 72% accurate and he prompts members to keep data fresh by offering more points). It may also blow up in your face if your target finds out where you got her phone number. Too many people we contacted through the service reacted in either outrage or contempt. "The information being out there doesn't bother me," says a business-development manager at a major Internet company. "But if people mentioned Jigsaw by name, my first reaction would be, 'You bought my name where?' Let's just say it's not a way to win friends and influence people."
A version of this article appeared in the June 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.