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Chris Fain is sold on online auctions

Grants Pass man aims to give eBay a run for the money

MERLIN-- Chris Fain says he's bought and sold more than $1 million worth of merchandise using online auctions.

The Grants Pass businessman and auctioneer says he was one of eBay's early users and has used most auction Web sites.

But he found all of them lacking. So he started his own, drawing on 18 years' experience in the auction business. Now, he's convinced his company, Fainco Inc., can be the next eBay.

That's the goal, he says. We have the most innovative online auction out there. ... We took all the best ideas ... and improved on them.

The newest version of his site, , is scheduled to debut Thursday. To kick it off, Fain plans a two-week event, The New Millennium Trade Show. The event starts Jan. 22 in the former Ernst building in Grants Pass. Auctioneer Wayne Liska will conduct an oral auction; Fain will sell part of his personal collection online, including an experimental airplane, a 1978 Porsche and a Civil War era cannon, in an absolute auction -- no minimum bid.

The auction will be open to anyone via the Internet. Computer terminals will allow people attending the show to bid. The idea is to introduce traditional auction fans to bidding over the Internet and onlineauction.com.

Fain, 41, bought an online auction company in late 1997. He improved the site's existing software and launched faincoauction.com in 1998.

In late 1998, Fain had a stroke of luck that is likely to play a major role in any future success.

He decided to purchase the rights to the fainco.com Web address. He contacted the owner of the rights, David Fain -- no relation -- of Atlanta, Ga. The two got to talking about Fainco's plans and David Fain mentioned he also had tried to launch on online auction site. The technical challenges had frustrated him and he'd moved on. But he had laid claim to a Web address: onlineauction.com.

Chris Fain saw an opportunity and purchased both fainco.com and onlineauction.com for $7,000. Other simple site names, or URLs, such as business.com and drugstore.com, have fetched millions.

I've been offered an immense amount of money for the URL, says Fain, who isn't selling.

Fainco Inc. is owned by Fain and about two dozen local investors. It's based in Merlin but its computer systems are in Ashland to take advantage of thr fiber-optic network.

The firm has a dozen employees. But Fain hopes it will be able to grow rapidly, tapping into the online auction craze. Consumer spending on online auctions is projected to hit $4.5 billion this year, according to Dow Jones. Large companies like eBay, Yahoo! and Amazon.com are spending millions on their online auction businesses.

Fainco spent just $1.3 million developing the Web site, cutting costs by bringing in programmers from India. To grow, he knows the company needs more investment. A New York investment banker has been hired to explore funding options -- including an initial public offering.

Despite its shoestring budget, Fain is convinced his site is superior to the others. Onlineauction.com has five auction formats, including what he believes is the Web's first sealed-bid auction. It also has a host of buyer and seller features, including many improvements

of services other sites offer. The idea was to create a more authentic auction experience and remove some frustrations he had with other sites.

On eBay, for instance, he found it annoying to have someone swoop in at the last second with a higher bid, leaving him without time to respond. So onlineauction.com added a snipe it bid feature. Any bid made in the final — minute, 15 seconds of an auction will extend the bidding -- giving other bidders a chance to respond.

Other features include hot bid, which notifies bidders when a bid has been topped, and bookmark, which lets users mark the locations of items as they browse.

Fain makes no bones about having modeled onlineauction.com after other sites -- particularly eBay. You go to the best ... and try to improve that, he says.

But eBay says it's ready for competition from upstarts like Fain.

We've been anticipating over the last year that other players would enter the market, says eBay's Kevin Pursglove. He says building and maintaining a quality site is very difficult -- as evidenced by eBay's technical troubles last year.

There's a bunch of online auctions, admits Mark Connell, the investment banker working with Fain. It's a crowded market. But the unique thing about onlineauction.com is Chris Fain. ... This is someone who's done this for decades.

A cannon of undetermined age and an experimental airplane housed in the former Ernst Home Center building in Grants Pass are among the more unusual items being auctioned on the Internet by Fainco Inc., a new company based in Merlin. - Photo by Bob Pennell