Two start-up companies are focusing directly on consumers-not billers or banks-to promote wider adoption of electronic bill presentment.
Since January, Cyberbills Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., and Secure Commerce Services Inc. of Princeton, N.J., have been operating Web sites that let consumers view and pay all of their bills on-line for a monthly fee.
Neither company has been marketing its service for very long, nor would they disclose how many customers they have attracted.
Secure Commerce Services said it has paid more than $1 million of bills to 350 billers since it started. Cyberbills said it has been doubling its subscriber total each month.
The companies are trying to address half of the "chicken-and-egg problem" in which billers are reluctant to adopt electronic billing until consumer demand rises and consumers remain uninterested until they can get most of their bills electronically.
Cyberbills and Secure Commerce Services both create electronic bills on behalf of companies that cannot do so and accept electronic bills from companies that already produce them. The aim is to ensure that customers can get all of their bills electronically.
Payments are debited against people's checking accounts and sent in either paper or electronic form to billers. Consumers can control the timing and amount of payments.
"Michael Jordan doesn't sit down to pay his bills," said Edward G. McLaughlin, co-founder and chief executive officer of nine-month-old Secure Commerce Services. "We're a personal assistant for everybody else."
Consumer adoption of bill presentment has been slow because of the lack of a "complete solution," said John Simpson, co-founder and CEO of Cyberbills, which was started up early last year. "By handling paper and electronic bills, we'll always be able to offer a 100% bill-management solution."
Other electronic billing methods require corporations to invest in formatting bills for the Web, and delivering them to consumers through their own Web sites or on banking, brokerage, or portal sites.
Cyberbills and Secure Commerce Services face consumer resistance to being charged for paying bills this way, said Avivah Litan, research director at GartnerGroup of Stamford, Conn. A Gartner survey of 11,150 people found that only 9% would pay more than $5 a month for on-line billing, she said. About 33% said they would pay $1 to $5, but 51% said they would not shell out a penny. Another 7% gave no answer.
Cyberbills charges people $8.95 to view and pay 15 bills a month. Secure Commerce charges $7.95 for the same number of bills.
Both are offering free trials to spur consumer interest. Secure Commerce's Paytrust is available free for three months. Cyberbills plans to lengthen a one-month free trial to several months.
Ms. Litan said the companies must also deal with consumers' preference for paying bills through banks. The obstacles are too many for either company "to make a significant dent" in consumer adoption, Ms. Litan said. "At best, they may appeal to 7% of the U.S. population."
Cyberbills debits customer checking accounts using the automated clearing house network, then sends a paper check to billers. It can also send payments through MasterCard's Remittance Processing Service.
Secure Commerce Services executes ACH payments for billers able to accept them. For others, it will cut a paper check after the customer registers with a voided check.
In addition to seeking customers directly, Cyberbills is pursuing partnerships with banks interested in rebranding the service for on-line retail customers. The first such partner, $67 million-asset America California Bank of San Francisco, plans to offer the service to customers in August. Secure Commerce said it would be open to such partnerships.
Both competitors have received undisclosed infusions of venture capital. Cyberbills is backed by ASCII Ventures, Online Ventures, and Sunrise Capital, and Secure Commerce Services has gotten financing from AT&T Ventures and Spectrum Equity.