Barry Star could not get any respect from the local bank when he started a small consulting business several years ago.
"I thought I was on top of the world, but the bank didn't give me the time of day," he said.
His dissatisfaction reached a boil when he was asked to pay a fee to deposit a $100,000 check into his own account. Inspired by his own frustration and similar tales from entrepreneurial friends, Mr. Star founded OneCore Financial Network Inc.
The seven-month-old Internet company, based in Woburn, Mass., has a broker-dealer license and offers small-business owners interest-bearing money market accounts from Scudder Investor Services Inc. and Federated Investors Inc. It also offers payroll processing, electronic bill payments, and assistance in setting up 401(k) plans.
Though he would not disclose the number of OneCore accounts, Mr. Star said growth had exceeded his "wildest expectations."
The start-up, formerly called Boston Financial Network, is capitalizing on the growing popularity of using the Internet to deliver financial services and on a target audience eager to get on-line.
PSI Global, a market research firm in Tampa, recently found that 63% of small businesses used the Internet, almost double the percentage two years earlier.
Though small businesses are embracingthe Internet, they remain underserved by traditional banks, observers say.
"Small businesses have been what we call the Rodney Dangerfields of retail banking," said Les Dinkin, managing principal of NBW Consulting Group in Westport, Conn. "They don't get enough respect."
That dissatisfaction has allowed large nonbanks such as American Express Co. and Merrill Lynch & Co. to move into the market and "skim off some of the best customers and some of the best product relationships," Mr. Dinkin said.
Internet companies may also be poised to do some skimming. Atlanta-based Ebank.com recently rolled out an Internet offering aimed at small businesses. And First Telebanc of Boca Raton, Fla., has focused on small- business lending.
"New browser-based technologies enable more cost-effective service delivery for small-business," said a recent report from Meridien Research of Newton, Mass.
Major banking companies such as KeyCorp of Cleveland and Fleet Financial Group of Boston have recognized that opportunity and bolstered their on- line small-business offerings. But such efforts typically lag Internet offerings for consumers, experts said.
Large banks have the advantage of widespread branch networks, which are important to small-business owners who still want some physical contact, Mr. Dinkin said.
OneCore and Ebank.com are addressing this need creatively.
Ebank.com said it would open 24 low-cost satellite offices around the country to serve its customers. These offices-staffed by loan officers- offer significant savings over traditional brick-and-mortar branches, Ebank.com says, since they have no tellers or safety deposit boxes and are located in leased office park space.
OneCore has established relationships with three large banks-Fleet, NationsBank, and Wells Fargo & Co.-that let its customers make deposits at branches in 30 states.
The strategy raises the question of whether banks are letting a Trojan horse through the gate, Mr. Dinkin said.
"It appears they're opening the doors to a potential national competitor," he said.
Officials from the three banks could not be reached for comment.
The banks could be seeking to benefit from having small-business owners walk into their branches, Mr. Dinkin said. There, they could be pitched products and services that OneCore does not offer, such as loans.
Mr. Star says he has confidence in the benefits OneCore provides-cash, convenience, control, and respect.