By Leslie Walker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 4, 1999; Page E1
"You've got clients."
People who earn their living on the Net might hear those words soon when they log online. The voice would belong to the "You've-got-mail" people America Online Inc. but it would have nothing to do with AOL's consumer service.
The Dulles-based Lord of Cyberspace is reaching out to touch the millions of Netizens whose offices are virtual ones somewhere on the World Wide Web. Under the code name "Free Agent Nation," AOL is preparing a new online service catering to these lone operators.
They are people like Hallie Leighton, a New York writer who is registering clever names as Web addresses and offering to sell them to businesses; Jo-Ann Tackovich, who sells Pola beauty products online from her home in Akron, Ohio; Scott Alliy, who is trying to start an "Internet wealth club" from League City, Tex.; and Mark Frauenfelder, who left Wired magazine last year to start "TV Ultra," a daily Web guide to the best shows on TV.
"There are about 5 million people today who work and make their money on the Net," said Ted Leonsis, president of AOL Studios, which develops new business strategies for the service. "They are collaborating in teams. They are consultants. They have their own home businesses. So we will launch a brand for them."
Leonsis won't disclose details, but AOL clearly wants to reach these wired workers who labor experts see as key players in the networked economy.
Never mind that many entrepreneurs on the Web today don't use AOL and consider it an amateur's service. The company plans to offer them a free, Web-based network where they could sell and swap their services and eventually band together to achieve the buying strength typically reserved for large companies.
A self-employed Web designer, for example, might get cheaper health insurance because the network would help Web workers qualify for group rates. AOL's network might also one day offer 401(k) retirement plans and other financial services.
For AOL, the service would be another marketplace where it could play the broker role it does in its dial-up service, charging hefty fees to companies that want to reach members with ads and direct marketing pitches.
For the millions of folks who are cutting loose from the corporate benefits so many Americans rely on, such a network might lend stability to fledgling careers, creating a safety net of sorts in the chaos that is cyberspace. Whether AOL already the world's largest online service with 15 million subscribers in its core service is the ideal broker to play this role for the emerging Web work force, which is emerging as a key element of the wired economy, remains to be seen. But AOL is certainly zeroing in on an important labor trend.
Internet marketing research firm CyberDialogue Inc. recently reported that more than 4 million of the estimated 12 million U.S. adults who run home-based businesses conduct their work online, and millions more plan to soon. At the end of 1997, Fast Company magazine ran a cover story titled "Free Agent Nation" in which the author estimated that more than one-sixth of the U.S. work force was freelancers.
Since then, the Internet has triggered an explosion of entrepreneurial activity as people flee established jobs for dreams of fabulous wealth on the global computer network.
AOL is hardly alone in reaching out to online business people. Scads of Web sites offer tools and services to help them do business electronically, including Netscape Communications Corp., which AOL has reached a deal to buy.
DigitalWork.com is one Web service with a mission similar to AOL's plan. Since last summer, the start-up has offered online press-release templates that entrepreneurs can fill out to publicize their services over the Business Wire, a public relations wire service. It also provides forms to place banner advertisements on the Web, forms to do direct e-mail marketing and forms for job recruiting.
"Fortune 1,000 companies get access to many services because of their scale from ad agencies, debt collection companies, public relations agencies," says Randy Grudzinski, a DigitalWork vice president. "Now the Internet makes it easy to bring these services to the level of the small-business person so they can self-service themselves."
These services appeal to Martha Slinkard, 45, who is just getting started in electronic commerce. She fled her hectic life as a registered nurse near Oakland more than a year ago and moved to Conway, Ark., to design Web sites and sell software online. No fan of AOL in its consumer form, Slinkard says she would be open to trying its planned free agents service. "I might have to change my opinion," she chuckled.
The idea also appeals to Hallie Leighton, 28, who worked full-time for Random House and CBS's "As the World Turns" before striking out on her own as a freelance writer in New York. Leighton writes an "advertorial" column for Women's Wear Daily and a humor column distributed via e-mail. Recently, she registered a bunch of Web domain names like "www.wisedollar.com" and "www.wisetaxes.com" and is peddling them online to other companies. For herself, she secured www.womanhattan.com to host a Web service for Manhattan women.
Leighton still relies on her mother to help her afford health insurance and is hungry for services to make her freelance career more secure. She loves the feeling of autonomy that she feels from working solo too much to consider giving it up: "It's hard, but it's something I was meant to do because it gives me the ability to determine my own destiny. I am my own boss."
Leighton speaks for millions of free agents yet to come on the Web. And the race is on to be the agent of these agents a powerful new business franchise of the future.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company