Ex-E*TRADE CEO Goes Social With MOLI

Christos Cotsakos, former CEO of E*TRADE, the online brokerage firm that revolutionized stock trading in Web 1.0, will unveil his Web 2.0 company called MOLI tomorrow at DEMO. And surprise, surprise — it’s a social network! Yet Cotsakos is undetered by what is an arguably overcrowded space: In a briefing with GigaOM last week, he explained what distinguishes MOLI (the name stands for “money and living”) from others with market-leader advantages (Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn) — and why he believes users will gravitate to MOLI anyway.

“People say the market has already formed,” he said, “but the market never forms. It only forms and reforms. There is still room for a handful of unique brands in this space.” Cotsakos, who founded MOLI in 2003, has had plenty of time to refine the company’s business model to ensure it might be one of them. And although odds are usually stacked against late entrants, MOLI does offer some compelling features.

For starters, users can finally manage diverse personal profiles via one user identity and a single, customized home page. (Currently, you might have more than one profile on Facebook — one for work colleagues, say, and another for college friends — but you can’t manage both from one login.) If MOLI flies, consumers might see an advantage in no longer having to maintain their professional profile on LinkedIn, their music fan club on MySpace and their political-interest profile on LiveJournal.

christos-profile-screen-shot2.png MOLI sets no limit on your number of profiles, which are free with your first URL (additional URLs cost $1.99.) Cotsakos’ home page (seen left) hosts 13 profiles, among them one for the Greek-American association to which he belongs, another for the Japanese tea ceremony he’s studying, and a third dedicated to the 101st Army Airborne unit he fought with in the Vietnam War (where his income appears suspiciously low). Some of his profiles are public, others private, and some are actually “hidden” (MOLI’s highest security level). Users get to decide what they want to share, and to what to degree.

MOLI will also be a first social network to target small businesses. There are 25 million of these in the U.S. alone, so it’s ripe territory, and MOLI has a killer feature: MOLI-hosted web stores. For just $3.99 a month, users can build retail sites that are linked to their profiles. Think of it as a personalized eBay page, but where your prospects for revenue are higher because you’re already connected to an audience that has self-selected for its interest in what you’ve got to sell.

Say you own a custom-publishing business, but moonlight as an artist. You could have two MOLI profiles: one for your company, another for your life as an illustrator, and two MOLI stores: one to sell your drawings, another to hawk your company’s books. Simply choose billing by Google Checkout, or PayPal, and manage them from one place.

Of all of MOLI’s features, I am most impressed with CoVibe Live, MOLI’s live data analytics wiki, which finally lets users profile the traffic across their pages. CoVibe Live is beautifully designed: data floats across the frame in pastel-colored bubbles so whimsical, clicking on them feels like a reflex. Do so, and a fever chart of information pops up, such as the days or hours when your goods sell best, and whether they sell to men or women (the data is generic, not personalized).
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Utilitarian, it is. But the real innovation here is that CoVibe Live will curb that nagging consumer dread over Big Web Brother amassing reams of data on us, simply by placing in consumers’ hands the financial benefits of collecting such data in the first place. Know when your books sell best, and you can market accordingly. (MOLI has filed patents on CoVibe Live.)

MOLI may be too focused on marketing, however. One of the few features I don’t care for is that MOLI will blend professional with user-generated content. This was described as a love pat to ad buyers, who crave the “safe harbor” of “quality, so they know what will be surrounding their ads,” as MOLI President Judy Balint put it. (You can pay $2.49 a month to make your experience ad-free.)

MOLI has a rich, and clearly expensive web design. Instead of the spare UIs that we’ve all grown so used to, the dashboard looks more like an enterprise software app gone hip. It may be too much. You can streamline your dashboard, of course, by limiting your features, but then you’d be muting the very purpose of MOLI.

MOLI has cost plenty. Cotsakos seeded the company with $20 million of his personal funds, plus $6 million from private investors. Today the West Palm Beach, Fla.-based company, which has 56 employees, including engineers in Ireland, Singapore, Germany, India and the UK, is announcing its second funding round: $29.6 million from another group of private investors including Home Depot founders Bernard Marcus and Kenneth G. Langone. The money will be used to grow the company internationally. Competing against Facebook, MOLI will need it.

“We’re not building a startup,” says Cotsakos. “We’re building a franchise and a large-scale sustainable brand.”

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