When American Express Co. introduced its Blue card for consumers last summer, it hired pop singer Sheryl Crow to attend a press conference and hype the card. Next week Amex plans to trot out Magic Johnson to promote Blue for Business, the latest version of its hybrid chip/magnetic stripe product.

Mr. Johnson, a former star guard for the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, is to hold forth at a press event in a New York restaurant Monday night, answering questions from small-company owners about starting an Internet business. He is working on his own Web business, a portal for African-Americans that is to be called UrbanMagic.com.

To promote Blue for Business, American Express will give away $800 worth of services from International Business Machines Corp. and SmartAge.com to the first 100 start-ups that sign up for the card. IBM is to develop the companies' Web sites, offer 25 items from its catalog, supply six months of free Web hosting, and set up an Internet address. SmartAge is to contribute an undisclosed amount of banner advertising development and placement.

In November a panel of judges is to review the companies' progress and choose the top 25. A month later the group will be whittled to 10, and in January one start-up company will get $100,000 from American Express to help finance its business.

The contest is to be heavily advertised on billboards, television, radio, and in print.

"We just want to give everybody a basic-level introduction to the Web," said a spokesman for American Express, "and use this as a living laboratory to understand what the successes and failures are."

Blue for Business, which was brought to market last month, is the second product in the company's Blue line; it is intended for small businesses - particularly Internet start-ups. Blue for Business charges no annual fee and comes with an introductory interest rate of 3.9% for balance transfers and purchases. The rate jumps to prime plus 3.99 percentage points after six months.

"The Internet is rapidly changing the face of small business," said Richard Tambor, a senior vice president and general manager for American Express small business services in New York. "Blue for Business wires entrepreneurs with the e-commerce and financing tools they need to compete in the new economy."

American Express is not the only credit card company trying to attract the attention of start-ups.

Visa U.S.A. announced Tuesday the three winners of its "Visa Start-Up 2000" program. They will get funding and other support from Visa and its partners.

The San Francisco card association read the business plans of more than 500 entrants before choosing the winners: Ready Notes, a postage-paid greeting card developer in Davis, Calif.; Millennium 3 Clinical Consulting Inc., a pharmaceutical and biotechnology research consulting firm in North Carolina; and Original Juan Specialty Foods Inc., a company in Kansas City, Kan.

Each company will get $25,000, to be spent through a Visa business card issued by U.S. Bancorp. The winners are also to get up to $50,000 of products and services from companies such as Compaq, Office Depot, and E-Stamp and free training from the Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership and the Service Corps of Retired Executives.

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