Small and midsize billers are getting more marketing attention from electronic bill providers, highlighting the importance of smaller billers in spurring consumer adoption of on-line billing.

"I think the role of small billers is absolutely critical in getting consumers interested in this," said Brook Newcomb, senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Almost one-quarter of consumers say they want all their bills presented in one place on the Internet before they will use on-line billing and payment, according to Forrester. Only a small percentage expressed interest in being able to get one bill on-line.

Companies serving the small-to-midsize niche include the recent start- ups Billserv.com Inc. of San Antonio and Derivion Corp. of Atlanta, as well as the more established Princeton Ecom Corp. of Princeton, N.J.

All offer a "service bureau" approach, in which they run the software on behalf of billers.

"The service bureau definitely appeals to billers who don't have the resources to build a system in-house," said Avivah Litan, research director at GartnerGroup of Stamford, Conn.

Billserv.com is most heavily targeting billers that send out 10,000 to one million statements per month. For Derivion, the range is 50,000 to one million. Princeton Ecom addresses all levels of billers, though its executives say they have many midsize customers.

"If the industry is going to progress the way we want it to," said Steven Greenwood, senior vice president of marketing and strategic alliances at Princeton Ecom, "everyone needs to make sure it's not just the large players who get attention."

The service bureau strategy will help Billserv.com foster the "critical mass" of billers needed to pull people to electronic billing, said Michael Long, the company's chairman and chief executive officer, in a conference call last week.

Billserv.com charges less than $50,000, and typically $30,000 to $35,000, to get a biller up and running. The service costs 35 to 65 cents per bill after that. Derivion charges billers a setup fee of $25,000 to $50,000 and 25 to 35 cents a month for each customer electronically billed.

Princeton Ecom charges less than $50,000 to set up a biller and about 30 cents per bill. It set up billers free of charge for a time to promote adoption of electronic billing, Mr. Greenwood said. But billers often did not aggressively promote the service when they did not have to pay for it, he said.

The service bureaus are hoping to boost adoption of electronic billing by bringing down its costs.

"Electronic bill presentment and payment was not being pushed out into the marketplace quickly enough," said Gregory J. Rable, chief executive officer of Derivion, "and a key reason was the way it was being provided to billers, in a software model. We saw the need for a service bureau approach."

Billserv.com recently announced agreements to present bills from UDP Inc., a San Antonio data processing company that serves the telecommunications and utility industries, and Ultramar Diamond Corp., an oil company that sends out 825,000 gasoline credit card bills a month.

Those agreements bring the company's roster of clients to seven, four of which are in pilot tests. Other customers include the San Antonio water system and the San Antonio Express-News.

Derivion is working with 40 unnamed customers, six of which are presenting bills on-line.

Fifteen-year-old Princeton Ecom, with about 250 companies using its electronic lockbox service, has 18 billers signed up for electronic bill presentment.

Ms. Litan of GartnerGroup said the electronic lockbox, which collects electronic payments from a variety of sources, gives Princeton Ecom an edge. The service sends payment information straight to a biller's accounts receivable system. It also determines which payments are exception items requiring more attention.

Start-ups like Billserv.com and Derivion face a potential challenge from the likes of Checkfree Holdings Corp. of Norcross, Ga., which will get a biller up and running for $25,000 to $50,000, Ms. Litan said. Checkfree has simply not focused its marketing on smaller billers.

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