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Best of the Net: Point. Click. Pay Your Bills

How easy is it to manage your monthly accounting on the Web? Our CEO panel gives credit where it's due.
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Best of the Net

Wouldn't it be great if you could sit at your computer and, with a few keystrokes, pay all your monthly bills? It can be just that simple, according to Web sites that let users do the job on-line. And there are many, ranging from independent start-ups to sites run by Microsoft and Yahoo. Even that bastion of snail mail, the U.S. Postal Service, has jumped into the electronic arena.

That's because millions of consumers still use the Web for a variety of finance-related tasks, including tracking stocks, managing banking, filing taxes, and applying for mortgages. Researchers at Gartner Group Inc., based in Stamford, Conn., expect that 26 million Americans will pay their bills on-line this year, up from 15 million in 2001. The primary attractions: convenience, simplicity, and speed.

We decided to give those promises a virtual reality check. We eliminated non-U.S. sites, those requiring compatible-software purchases, and the ones banks offer their customers.

That still left a diverse group of contenders. Some allow customers to make free E-payments but only to participating companies. Others, like Paytrust, let users send electronic or hard-copy checks to anybody anywhere for a subscription fee of $3 to $20 a month. Some offer paperless management, many offer free trials, most can handle recurring payments automatically, and all require users to provide bank-account numbers and other financial and personal information.

We invited six CEOs, most with little or no on-line bill-paying experience, to evaluate the services without identifying themselves as Inc reviewers. Their conclusions? "This is an up-and-coming type of service, but providers just don't have it right yet," says Nancy Mobley.

Other judges echoed concerns about security. "Those of us who cringe knowing that even the Department of Defense can be hacked will think twice about on-line bill-paying sites," says Brandon Shamim.

But one judge was a convert well before tackling this assignment. Graham Weston already has all his bills sent directly to PayMyBills.com, a subsidiary of Paytrust. That way, he says, "I have a complete record of the statements electronically. Cuts down on all the paper on my desk."

Our panelists, who worked independently, reached no consensus about the best bill-paying service. Four praised Paytrust, ranking it their first or second choice; two others liked CheckFree best. The judges were split on StatusFactory -- two ranked it in their top two choices; two others placed it among their least favorite sites.


Anne Stuart is a senior writer at Inc.


The Savvy Entrepreneur's Guide to Bill-Paying Resources on the Web

Site
Bills.com (www.bills.com)

What it's good for
Lightninglike response time and a demo that has clear explanations.

Don't waste your time if
You fear, as one judge did, that the site's many broken links indicate a sloppy approach to managing money.

What our CEOs had to say
"They didn't do anything to build my trust," said Nancy Mobley. The site requested her Social Security and driver's-license numbers.

What you should know
The price is $6.95 a month for 20 bills, and there's a free trial.


Site
CheckFree (www.checkfree.com)

What it's good for
An outstanding demo and easy navigation featuring "Scout," a canine character that retrieves users' bills.

Don't waste your time if
You're seeking a one-stop shop for paying all your bills. "It's free, so the service is very limited," said Graham Weston.

What our CEOs had to say
"No negatives. A great site," said Mobley. "Good for first-time users" despite sluggish download times, said Brandon Shamim.

What you should know
The site lets users make free E-payments to hundreds of companies and powers other E-bill sites, including MSN and Yahoo.


Site
MSN Bill Pay (Billpay.msn.com)

What it's good for
Easy navigation and a variety of payment plans.

Don't waste your time if
You object to the free and required -- but time-consuming -- extra step of getting an MSN ".NET Passport."

What our CEOs had to say
"I couldn't access the free trial," said Linda Spain. Tim Patrick praised a strong, clear, prominently displayed privacy policy.

What you should know
The site offers several plans ranging from free to $5.95 a month depending on services. Pay plans have a free trial.


Site
Paytrust (www.paytrust.com)

What it's good for
Complete bill management; easy navigation; and cool on-line tools, including a demo and a site tour.

Don't waste your time if
You're looking for no-cost trials or services.

What our CEOs had to say
"My top choice," said Weston. "Very, very simple to use and understand." The site is especially useful for travelers, said Spain.

What you should know
The site offers personal and business plans for $2.95 to $19.95 a month, with additional per-transaction costs.


Site
StatusFactory (www.statusfactory.com)

What it's good for
An easy sign-up process and comprehensive bill management that can be integrated with on-line banking.

Don't waste your time if
You want a simple service just for paying bills.

What our CEOs had to say
"Weak on security reassurances," Mobley said. "Good as a clearinghouse for billing and payment information," Shamim said.

What you should know
The site offers plans from $5.95 to $17.30 a month, and a CD-ROM ($29.95) that provides a one-year record of all transactions.


Our judges:

E. Alexander Goldstein, president and CEO, Configuresoft, Woodland Park, Colo.

Nancy R. Mobley, CEO, Insight Performance, Dedham, Mass.

Timothy J. Patrick, president and CEO, Proxima Therapeutics, Alpharetta, Ga.

Brandon F. Shamim, managing principal, Beacon Management Group, Los Angeles

Linda B. Spain, president and CEO, Advanced Reality, Houston

Graham Weston, CEO and cochairman, Rackspace Managed Hosting, San Antonio


The Whole New Business Catalog

IncQuery: Cracking the Big-Company Market
RE: Positioning -- What's in a Name?
Hands On: Budgeting for Blunders
Best of the Net: Point. Click. Pay Your Bills
Customer Service: Consumer Reports


Please E-mail your comments to editors@inc.com.

Last updated: Nov 1, 2002




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