FORTUNE Small Business

Websites for cell phones

More small firms reach out to on-the-go customers.

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Brett Dewey's business, WickedCoolStuff, got an instant sales boost from its new dot-mobi site - which costs him just $100 a month to build and maintain.

Brett Dewey's company thrives on spur-of-the-moment purchases. His North Hollywood, Calif., web business, WickedCoolStuff, collects $1 million a year for nostalgic merchandise such as Captain Picard action figures, Underdog lunch boxes, and toys based on Monty Python movies. His customers, mainly men in their late 20s, are more tech savvy than most online shoppers, but they aren't chained to their computers. Even Star Trek fans venture outdoors.

So when Dewey heard about a new kind of website tailored to conduct e-commerce over cellphones, he jumped at the chance to make himself accessible to clients during virtually all their waking hours. "If someone sees an advertisement, he may not remember it by the time he gets back to his computer," he says. "But his phone is always on hand for an impulse buy."

If the first wave of online business was all about getting a dot-com, the next may be about adding a dot-mobi. The new web address became available for the first time in May and is administered by Mobile Top Level Domain (mTLD; mtld.mobi), a private company based in Dublin. Sign up for a dot-mobi address and you'll be required to stick to a list of best practices, such as using the xhtml language. Complex design elements such as frames are banished. "When a site is built that way," says mTLD marketing director Vance Hedderel, "it's guaranteed to work well on every cellphone in the world."

Nearly all new cellphones are set up to browse the web, but what users often see is a site designed for viewing on a PC that is being squeezed onto a matchbook-sized screen. A better browsing experience could provide a much-needed boost for mobile commerce in the U.S. Unlike their counterparts in Asia and Europe, Americans seldom use their phones to access the Internet. Telephia, a communications research firm in San Francisco, says that just 13% of Americans with Internet-capable cellphones go online - and a paltry 1% have bought a product via mobile browsers, compared with 28% in Japan. "Consumers are paying for Internet on their phones, but they're not using it," says David Gill, a Telephia analyst.

Is dot-mobi the answer? Plenty of businesses seem to think so. In its first five months of operation, the mTLD sold 700,000 domain names. In October it started auctioning off premium domain names, such as poker.mobi, which netted $150,000, and ringtones.mobi, which went for $145,000. (A typical dot-mobi address sells for about $10 a year.) A supply chain of roughly 300 domain registrars has sprung up to resell dot-mobi domains - and 135 of the registrars are based in the U.S.

Designing and hosting a dot-mobi site can be relatively cheap. MyDomain, a company based in Vancouver, Wash., that has registered and designed dot-coms since 1998, launched a dot-mobi application this summer. It charges a one-time fee of $199 for registration and design, and $15 a year for hosting (compare that with dot-com hosts such as Yahoo Merchant, which charges $40 a month).

mTLD offers a free tool that evaluates, on a scale of one to five, how close your website is to becoming a dot-mobi. A free site builder will help you take it all the way. Still, Hedderel doesn't dissuade companies from hiring services such as MyDomain. "If you're a gunslinger who wants to save a few bucks, then buy a site from a cheap registrar and build it for free," he says. "But if you hire help, you don't have to toy with it on a daily basis."

MyDomain CEO Clint Page says the key is making dot-mobi sites as bare bones as possible. "On the mobile web, you have about 20 seconds of the user's attention," he says. "Sites don't have to be pretty - they just need to be efficient."

The success of dot-mobi is far from assured. Mobile-commerce proponents are also turning to other domains, such as M dot, as in m.google.com. Apple's iPhone allows users to browse regular dot-com websites and zoom in and out naturally by sliding their fingers across the screen - potentially rendering dot-mobi unnecessary.

Still, analysts advise small businesses to hedge their bets. "If it's cheap, reserve the address," says Telephia's Gill. mTLD does have an impressive list of heavyweight backers, including Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), and Nokia (NOK). And the influence of the iPhone may be overblown - even if Apple hits its ambitious sales targets, it will own just 1% of the cellphone market by mid-2008. Dot-mobi investments have plenty of room to pay off.

It doesn't take much more than a single sale to ring up returns. Derek Group, a photography studio based in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., received a dozen inquiries stemming from derek.mobi during the two months after MyDomain created the site for it. "When one client called us, the new [dot-mobi] site was the determining factor in the sale," says CEO Derek Jackson. "He could access it as he was speaking to us." The $3,500 sale yielded about $1,750 in profits - an immediate 875% ROI from his $200 dot-mobi investment.

Even if consumers - wary of insecure connections and unexpected bills - aren't ready to join the m-commerce revolution just yet, a dot-mobi site can be of help. "My customers aren't quite willing to place orders from their cellphones," says Jeff Stone, CEO of BikeSomewhere, a bicycle retailer in Coconut Grove, Fla., that hired mPoria, a Seattle-based web developer, to create its dot-mobi. "But they will use the mobile site to see our prices when they're in other stores."

And what of WickedCoolStuff? After researching his options, Dewey also hired mPoria. Just two days later wickedcoolstuff.mobi launched, for a total investment of $100 a month. Dewey's first dot-mobi sale was a $40 action figure of Michael Myers, the antihero of the Halloween movies. Dewey clears 50% from each purchase; he recouped half his investment in September and expects to profit from it in December. Thanks to dot-mobi, Dewey can track when the shopper bought the toy and what type of device he used, but he can only guess as to where the Myers fan was. "I hope he was in a theater, watching the latest installment of Halloween," he says, "and that all he had to do was pull out his phone."  To top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.