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TheStreet Open House

When Access Issues Arise, One Innovator Hears a Higher Calling

SAN FRANCISCO -- BestCalls.com isn't Mark Coker's first Silicon Valley startup. Before turning his attention to investor conference calls, Coker tried a rather bird-brained scheme.

In the backyard of his suburban Los Gatos, Calif., home Coker kept a columbary aflutter with more than 70 homing pigeons. Struck by their beauty one afternoon, he naturally hit upon the idea that people might pay to enjoy their splendor. "Pigeons represent everything I believe in," he says. "Peace and purity and honesty and fairness -- what could be better for a wedding?"

He busily began to acquire more snow-white pigeons for his fledgling business. He placed a newspaper ad in search of his first wedding. But just as everything was ready to launch, a competing wedding outfit cried fowl to the authorities -- Coker, it seems, was in violation of local poultry laws (the limit inside the city is four birds). He petitioned the authorities but to no avail. He got rid of the birds, and his first business was grounded.

Ten years later, Coker's latest venture, a Web site named BestCalls.com, is pecking at regulatory authority once again. But this time the stakes are higher. Now the 33-year-old has the Internet -- and maybe even the Securities and Exchange Commission -- on his side.

BestCalls.com helps small-time investors access conference calls of publicly traded companies. Though little known outside the investing community, the conference call is indeed one of Wall Street's rare birds: unfiltered, raw information directly from company muckety-mucks. CEOs and CFOs generally hold a call each quarter after the release of earnings, fielding questions from financial analysts and big-time money managers. Murky financial statements are explained, and the privileged listeners are illuminated.

Coker first learned of conference calls in a job as a publicist for McAfee software. "I was surprised at the level of discourse," says Coker. "The questions were smart, the answers were from the horse's mouth. There's no better way to skip through all the garbage and find out what's really going on with a stock."

An active investor and creature of the Internet, Coker was trading stocks in his Schwab Online account and posting on bulletin boards like those on Yahoo! (YHOO) Finance and Silicon Investor. He began to contact the companies in which he was a shareholder and was shocked to find that they prohibited him from listening to the conference calls.

Coker doesn't look the type usually invited into the boardroom with the suits. He's more accustomed to "Silicon Valley style" -- that is, none: Dockers, collared shirts, "comfortable" shoes. His one suit has hung in his closet since he left Berkeley. With mussed sandy hair, bright green eyes and a dreamy smile, his manner is all unperturbed Northern Californian, complete with the requisite regional hobbies (mountain biking and hiking).

And then there's his aviary inclination. In his boyhood home, along with a mixed-breed cat (named Danguard) and a Dalmatian (Teddy), he lives with a covey of pigeons, a coopful of chickens, a rooster, a duck (named Mrs. Duck) and a parrot (with a name unsuitable for children). "They're relaxing," he says of his menagerie. "The sound of a rooster crowing in the morning is soothing to me." Never mind the neighbors.

But being kept off conference calls irked Coker. He got into an online feud, flaming an investor-relations flack from storage-device maker Legato Systems (LGTO) on the Yahoo! chat boards. "They said, 'No way -- it's not our policy to let individual investors on conference calls,'" says Coker. "I made a pest of myself, but I finally gave up and sold my 3,000 shares." (A Legato spokesman confirms that earnings calls are invitation only, but the company now offers a delayed replay.) These companies have argued that legally the information revealed on these calls is not 'material,' but don't believe it -- no serious Wall Streeter wastes his time on anything immaterial.

The secrets of the conference call are jealously guarded: Without it, what advantage would big investors have over the little guy? Right now, in the heart of earnings season, those advantages are deeply felt. Yahoo! surged 8 in after-hours trading during its conference call last Wednesday as the company explained that page views were up dramatically. The information wasn't available in the press releases, but those lucky enough to be on the conference call were able to get ahead of other investors. Yahoo! is now one of a growing number of companies that makes its conference calls available online. But there are still plenty that don't -- something Coker intends to remedy.

Evangelized by his experience with Legato, Coker enlisted his programmer brother, Doug, and his father, Charles, a retired Silicon Valley executive, to put together BestCalls.com. He began to amass a database of companies that post their conference calls online, including links to the Webcasts of the calls.

On March 22 the site went live, and since then Coker has registered more than 14,000 users. But he's still butting heads with some companies that refuse to broadcast their calls. "There's no reason for that now that the technology is on the Net," says Coker. "What goes on in the conference call is material information to shareholders -- all shareholders."

Big shots like Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Philip Morris (MO), Silicon Valley Group (SVGI) and Caterpillar (CAT) are just some of the companies that have refused to broadcast or even rebroadcast their calls online, Coker maintains. "Right now," Caterpillar spokeswoman Kim Carroll says, "we see conference calls as a service to institutional investors. We just can't let every individual investor listen in."

These companies have argued that legally the information revealed on these calls is not "material," but don't believe it -- no serious Wall Streeter wastes his time on anything immaterial.

It's an issue the SEC has noticed. Last year, SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt offered some criticism of unusual trading following private conference calls with institutional investors. "It doesn't take Oliver Stone to imagine how that might come about," said Levitt. "Any investor looking at this situation would think it's wrong for those who have received this information to trade before the public announcement -- or to tip off their friends, or their family members, or their colleagues in their firms."

The SEC has yet to put its muscle where its mouth was. But Coker sees his site as addressing the issue head-on. And while his last business doesn't have wings, but it does seem to have legs. "Once people find out what goes on in the conference calls they're going to be demanding access," says Coker. "All these people on the Net are hungry for information."

BestCall.com's 14,000-user base is the Californian's bully pulpit for opening up more conference calls. Cisco (CSCO) is on his current email-writing list, and he's contacted the SEC and the National Investor Relations Institute to convince them to work with him. And over all of it hangs Coker's sense of higher purpose. "This may sound stupid, but I really see it as a cause, not a business," says Coker. "Our mission is to shine a very bright light into every call. We're gonna change the world."

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