Autobytel.com has 'first-mover advantage'

SPECIAL REPORT -- Autobytel.com Inc. (proposed ticker: ABTL), formerly Auto-By-Tel Corp.

SPECIAL REPORT -- Autobytel.com Inc. (proposed ticker: ABTL), formerly Auto-By-Tel Corp., shortened its name, added a ".com," and now plans to finally launch its initial public offering.

The company revived its plans to go public last month, after ditching plans back in April 1997.

Autobytel.com generates money through advertising and through its referral service. Web surfers peruse the site's free information and Autobytel.com collects fees if the visitors use one of the company's 2,718 paying dealers.

Like many of these soon-to-be-public companies, Autobytel.com faces a lot of competition.

The online referral service claims Autoweb.com, Cendant Membership Service Inc.'s Autovantage, Microsoft's CarPoint and Stoneage Corp. as competitors. Republic Industries Inc., parent of AutoNation, also has a Web site. Autobytel also competes indirectly with vehicle brokerages and affinity programs offered by wholesalers, such as Costco Wholesale Corporation and Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Then there are the manufacturers themselves, with their own Web sites, such as General Motors Corp.'s BuyPower. The company also cites vehicle insurers, lenders and other dealers as competition.

But Autobytel also gets the "first mover advantage" over competitors by being the first in its business to tap the public market. "Once they go public, there's this instant branding that happens," said Tom Taulli, research director at Silicon Investor. Liken this to Amazon.com Inc. (Nasdaq: AMZN), which has been in the press on a daily basis since going public -- that's a lot of free advertising.

Autoweb was king of the road for December, bringing in 1.24 million unique visitors. CarPoint attracted 1.007 million visitors and Autobytel had 642,000 visitors. Autovantage and BuyPower both had below 100,000 visitors for the month.

"Autobytel's well known, but it's going to be really competitive for them," said Francis Gaskins, editor of Gaskins IPO Desktop..

The $82.8 million offering of 4.5 million shares have an expected price at $16 a share. BT Alex Brown, Lehman Brothers and PaineWebber are managers on the offering.