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Webvan refugees start small this time

bizsig.jpgRemember "grow big fast?'' It was a mantra of the dot-com boom, and it came to exemplify one of the problems of Webvan's failed business strategy. Few people remember that as well as Peter Relan, the former CIO of Webvan. It's one reason you probably haven't heard of his company, Business Signatures, until recently, even though it started nearly four years ago. This time, Relan started small and stayed under the radar.

Initially called CotageSoft, the company is just now rebranding itself and starting a campaign to open its services to a wider group of cutomers.

"We said, lean-and-mean, low-burn and stealth,'' Relan said. "We believe it's a phenomenal way to build a business. It's the heart of Silicon Valley.''

So what is Business Signatures? Its product is intended to help companies recognize the "intent'' of their online customers and act on it. Relan says that online users express "intent' most anytime they click around a Web site, from logging on to browsing a certain section of a site. Relan calls these "signatures of intent.''

Is a customer spending a lot of time in a particular part of a web site, but not buying anything? Or paying his bills online and also peeking at mortage rates. Business Signatures can red-flag that user and help the company find the best way to lure the customer into completing a transaction, either immediately or down the road.

Offline retailers have been doing this for years, Relan says. Nordstrom sales clerks will observe shoppers and try to discern how intereted they are in the shoes they're looking at, for example. Online sellers, with the exception of big Internet companies such as Amazon and eBay, do not do as good a job of acting on cuctomer intent, he says.

"You expressed intent, but who remembers in the online world,'' he says. "Now, they can understand intent, and act on demand whey they think it's appropriate.''

Business Signatures leases its technology to companies. Its target is firms in the $100 million to $1 billion range. So far, the company has 12 customers, including Geico, H&R Block and Safeway.com.

There's no Silicon Valley garage start-up story here. Relan's garage was full of kids toys, so he and his partners ran the business out of the cottage in the back of his house for the first couple of years - hence the company's original name.

Relan, who worked at Oracle before Webvan, is joined by two other Webvan/Oracle refugees, Sunil Bhargava and Joyo Wijaya. His backers are names familiar to many in the valley - insider Ram Shriram and David Roux, co-founder of Silverlake Partners and another former Oracle employee.

The company's taken $12 million, so far, from TPG Ventures and Walden International.



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