(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- One of the many remarkable aspects of the Internet is how easily people can use it to pretend to be something they aren't. There are, of course, terrifying results, such as when crooks pose as your bank.
But David Carter has taken that capacity for misdirection and made it into a legitimate way to make money.
For instance, Carter didn't know a thing about asbestos when he launched AsbestosSurveys.com - yet it sure looked as if he did. He wrote about regulatory changes in his native England by culling data from a government website. He explained what property owners needed to do to comply. He even posted local phone numbers for his "business" in London, Manchester, and Birmingham, each of which was forwarded to an answering service.
When inquiries flooded in, Carter steered them to an acquaintance who really was an asbestos surveyor. The requests were far more than one surveyor could handle, but Carter continued to book new customers.
"I told them there was a big backlog," recalls Carter, who is 47 and lives in Birmingham. "Then I said, 'Oh, God. What do I do now?'"
For Google search, generic is good
To Carter, there was really only one answer: Become a surveyor himself.
So with eager customers, Carter turned his site and follow-on properties into an actual business, called AsbestosServices.com. He took a half-week course, got certified, and teamed up with his friend. Today, once or twice a week -essentially whenever he feels like getting out of the house - Carter surveys a property, armed with a digital camera and notepad. The effort, he says, will net the pair about $350,000 this year.
Carter set up the site three years ago as an experiment to see what would happen if he dressed up a website to reflect a more serious and professional operation than it actually was. In doing so he stumbled across what turned out to be a clever way to cash in on the power of Internet search and marketing. The basic strategy: Build the customer base first, and then figure out how to sell to it.
In many cases, Carter simply becomes the middleman, using the Web to attract willing buyers that he hands off to others for a fee.
He identifies a business niche or a hot growth area like commercial real estate. Then he buys domain names around the topic, saving money by shunning pricey domains for names with hyphens, such as http://www.commercial-property.co.uk/.
He builds the sites, adds content, and waits for customers. Search the phrase "commercial property" in MSN, for instance, and Carter's site pops up on the first page, advertising that it has people eager to sell and buy commercial property. In truth, Carter has only a few contacts.
Different shades of gray
Yet calls are coming in.
One guy wants to buy an industrial park; another wants to rent a warehouse. Carter takes the information and then starts calling around to find a referral. "I don't have any inside information, but I know how to ring up a landlord," he says.
Carter argues that local businesses have created a great opportunity because they often make the mistake of advertising on the Web using their company's name, even though people generally search by product or topic. That's why Carter's general-sounding names usually pop up before something like SmithAsbestos.com. If you're not going to provide the service yourself, Carter recommends that you work with local businesses looking for customers.
The whole strategy might sound slightly deceptive, and in a sense it is. But so long as the customer ultimately gets what he wants, Carter doesn't see a problem.
"The Internet's just a big bluff," he says. "If you can make a site look pretty and sound credible, you can pull inquiries in for just about anything and turn the Internet into one great sales-generation machine."
THE ANGLE: Line up your customers first, then create a business around them.
1. Identify an overlooked need for services kicked up by, for instance, relatively obscure regulatory changes.
2. Construct a first-rate website with a generic domain name that will draw in prospective customers.
3. With clients in hand, create the business, providing the service yourself or subcontracting to established players.