Pierce Spencer may not quite be this year's version of the Internet millionaire, but he's got the right instincts and he's still young enough.
The 15-year-old just wrapped up his freshman year of high school at the Woodward Academy in Atlanta and, over the last few weeks, has made almost as much money as he expects to take in this summer working at a local restaurant, Moe's Southwest Grill.
It's one of those Internet schemes, reminiscent of the days of the dot-com boom, where money is generated seemingly from nothing: Pierce buys e-mail accounts and sells them on eBay, a business he has so far managed mostly during his lunch hour, between exams and after school.
He has Google to thank: An upcoming free e-mail service from the popular search engine has people so eager to get an account before all the catchy e-mail account names are swept up that they're willing to pay for one of the relatively few test accounts available today. Pierce's biggest customer so far paid $102.50 for an account.
Pierce is merely the middleman. When a friend bragged to him about having a "Gmail" account a few weeks ago, Pierce hadn't heard of Google's e-mail service. Then he checked eBay and discovered a booming business. Though most auctions were offering accounts individually, one seller was selling off multiple accounts, for a little under $30 apiece. Pierce snapped up the accounts and resold them on the auction site, in auctions that generally closed at around $60 each.
"I was freaking out because I was expecting a $3 profit per account," said Pierce, who has made more than $1,000 and is saving up for his first car (he has his eye on an Audi).
The final prices of Pierce's auctions seem to rise and fall of their own accord, without much rhyme or reason. Sometimes he thinks the sales have finally run their course, then they perk up again. "It's like the stock market," he said.
Pierce has sold, by his count, more than 50 accounts. His main supplier has been a Gmail early adopter who told Pierce he has friends at Google who hook him up with accounts. Account holders sometimes get chances to invite new users to the Gmail-using club; for well-connected users who have multiple accounts, the invitations can pile up.
Pierce's father, Richard Spencer, trades commodities online with an Atlanta-based company called Intercontinental Exchange Inc., but says his son's eBay business is over his head. "If you can figure it out, you're ahead of me," is about all he says of his son's entrepreneurial scheme.
Searches on the term "Gmail" during a recent week usually turned up in the neighborhood of 300 eBay auctions. "If you just wait, [the Gmail accounts are] going to be free, so it's all about getting the user name," Pierce said.
So, rather than griping that they feel like chumps, Pierce's customers have lined his user profile with positive feedback in the excitable language of eBay ("Absolutely as promised! Gmail account is up and working!! Kudos!").
Buyers typically say that they wanted to get an account because they wanted to get a "good" name for a service they are sure will catch on when Google finally opens the floodgates and lets anyone grab an account. Art Neil, a tech consultant in Redmond, Wash., bought an account on eBay out of his respect for Google. "They are really good writers and they put out very nice software," said Neil from his Gmail account, for which he paid a relatively low $35.
Google has not announced how long it expects Gmail to remain in its test period. Pierce, obviously, hopes it goes on indefinitely, though his source seems to have slowed down the supply lately. Some auctioneers on eBay are spreading stories that Google has cut down on the number of new accounts because of the auctions; Google declined to comment for this story.
An entrepreneurial kid more interested in sports than computers, Pierce has another trick or two up his sleeve, for use if and when the supply dries up. He has already grabbed a few Gmail user names he thinks he'll be able to sell. He sold off the "tyrant@" Gmail address and is holding onto the "military@" address for sale later on. When he doesn't have Gmail accounts to offer, he sells "advice" for Gmail seekers on how to score one of the coveted invites.
This isn't the first time eBay has been used to sell "cool" names; other eBay auctions have sold clever handles for users of "instant message" programs.
They've also been a market for accounts with Slashdot, a popular news site for the geekily inclined. Slashdot user accounts are associated with "karma" points, which members earn by submitting interesting articles or offering constructive comments; the better a user's karma, the better his official reputation at Slashdot.
Slashdot co-founder Rob Malda said the site's founders are not fans of such auctions, but that they generally ignore them.
"The only reason I don't want people to do it is because it could be abused -- accounts have history, and sometimes reputation, associated with them," Malda wrote in an e-mail. "I think that the Gmail thing is quite different from that. . . . He's selling new accounts, so there's no reputation per se."
Though Google declined to comment, Greg Lastowka, an assistant law professor at Rutgers Law School, said he saw nothing forbidding the sale of Gmail accounts in the "terms of service" to which would-be Gmail users have to agree to get an account. For comparison, he checked similar agreements for both eBay and Yahoo's e-mail service and found that both services explicitly forbid the selling of their own accounts.
Pierce's father wondered about the ethics and legalities of selling Google's free accounts online, but Pierce has convinced him that eBay would have shut auctions like his down quickly if it had any problems with the practice. In any case, "no police cars have shown up yet," Spencer said.
And it looks as though none will. Though eBay users can't auction off their own eBay accounts, a spokesman for the online auction company said yesterday that it has no problems with users selling the Gmail accounts.
"There's nothing in our policies that would cause us to pull those listings," said Hani Durzy at eBay. "Our rule is that whatever's being sold must be deliverable. It doesn't have to be physically deliverable."