If 1997 is the year that Internet banking truly comes of age-as many bankers predict-then Paul D. Fiore's story may stand for the era.
President and chief executive officer of Digital Insight, a start-up company that puts banks and credit unions up on the Internet, Mr. Fiore has been working around the clock. He and his partner, Daniel Jacoby, routinely brainstorm in the office until midnight, which is the only way to get quiet time after the daylong jangle of telephones.
The whole company works that way. After computer overloads caused one power outage too many, Mr. Fiore temporarily divided his growing staff into day and night shifts.
Digital Insight designs Web pages, including ones that enable customers to do banking transactions on-line. Founded in July 1995, the Camarillo, Calif., company has contracts to create Web sites for 135 banks and credit unions, 60 of them "transactional." About half are "live."
In a market dominated by larger and better-known players, the demand on Digital Insight may speak to the level of bankers' obsession with the Web.
The phone that rings off the hook in Mr. Fiore's office shows the race to the Web is especially intense among smaller banks.
"It's definitely still a young market," said Mr. Fiore, 32, a former banker and credit union officer.
Most large banks and many smaller ones have already chosen their Internet vendors. Among the older and more familiar companies offering these services are Checkfree Corp., Edify Corp., and Security First Technologies.
"We get a lot of requests-there are a lot of people who are out shopping," Mr. Fiore said. "One of the things we've attempted to focus on is deliverables. Not just signing everybody up, but making sure that we implement and deliver on the ones we've signed."
The company, which is just north of Los Angeles, started with three people. It now has 40 employees and plans to double the staff within six months.
Unlike some other vendors, Digital Insight has placed its faith squarely on the Internet. Mr. Fiore says proprietary software and other home-banking options will wither away.
"The whole world is switching from desktop to network," he said.
"Let's say you finish your bill payment at home, and then you come visit me in California. You're in my office, and you say, 'Wait a minute, I forgot to pay my electricity bill.' Well, I don't have a copy of your Quicken program, but I do have Internet access."
Mr. Fiore is among a growing number of Web enthusiasts who say browsers will become the dominant vehicle for home-banking connections. Some of his clients agree.
"We looked at the Quicken and Money approach, but decided that wasn't the way to go," said Rush Paul, vice president for electronic banking at Jefferson National Bank, Charlottesville, Va.
Digital Insight is aiming to have a transactional Web site ready for $2 billion-asset Jefferson by midyear. The bank's Internet philosophy seems typical of those that resisted the early rush to the Web.
"We did not want to put up a noninteractive Web site just so we could say we had a Web site," Mr. Paul said. "We wanted to make it very functional, have valuable content, not have it be brochure ware. We deferred it until we could decide how to approach having some on-line access."
Jefferson National chose Digital Insight because the company agreed to host the bank's site, and because "they were one of the few third-party developers who actually had financial institutions up and live on the Web," Mr. Paul said.
Some competitors view Digital Insight's Internet-only approach as narrow. Ray Crozier, senior vice president of sales for Online Resources and Communications Corp. of McLean, Va., said his bank clients want to be able to support a variety of channels, not just the Internet.
"We compete for customers (with Digital Insight), but our services differ greatly," Mr. Crozier said. "When you look at what it takes to offer a complete home-banking and bill-payment service, it's more than a communications service or a single device that someone might hook up through."
Digital Insight is starting to branch into more sophisticated applications, like letting bank customers buy Treasury bills or check stock quotes on-line. For each product introduction, the guinea pig has been Community Credit Union of Plano, Tex.
"What's nice about being in a pilot is we get a lot of input as to how we'd like to see it work," said Kimberly A. Phillips, executive vice president of the $480 million-asset credit union.
Community Credit Union has offered Internet account access for almost a year, and 6,000 of its 120,000 members have signed up.
Mr. Fiore has worked as an accounting manager at a community bank in New York and as chief financial officer of a credit union in New Jersey, but he met Mr. Jacoby while both were working at XP Systems, a technology vendor for credit unions.
Mr. Fiore and his technologist partner, Mr. Jacoby, played softball together on XP Systems' company team. After games, they batted around ideas about how financial institutions could use the Internet.
"One day he sent me this E-mail saying, 'I've got it,'" Mr. Fiore said.
With seed money from XP Systems, the partners hired a third person, set up a small office, and began building the system they now offer. Mr. Fiore said the small size of their operation has allowed them to move more quickly than larger competitors.
Mr. Fiore and Mr. Jacoby tell of the time they went to dinner after work to think up an appealing product they could demonstrate at an upcoming trade show. They decided that adding stock quotations would be neat.
"We started putting it on the back of a napkin, what it would look like and how it would work," Mr. Fiore said. "Then we went back to the office at something like 11:30 at night and started researching all the companies that did Internet stock quotes."
They found some company names on the Net and started calling to leave voice messages for Monday morning. To their surprise, they were able to reach the founder of Quote.com, Chris Cooper, also burning midnight oil.
"We put him on the speaker phone and told him our plan," Mr. Fiore said. "Here is a great example of two hungry Internet companies working late on Friday night, when maybe the people at IBM or Visa Interactive had gone home."
Within two weeks, the companies had connected Quote.com's stock data to Digital Insight's Internet banking service.
"By the time we went to the conference," Mr. Fiore said, "we already had a customer up and running on the system."