An ambitious new start-up that aims to upend the way individual investors trade stocks is off to a promising start. Zecco.com, an Ontario, Calif.,- based company that counts LunkKenner Ventures -- the first venture capital firm to invest in eBay's Skype division -- as an early backer, lets investors trade stocks for free while offering services like options trading at discounts below even low-price giants like E*Trade ( ETFC) and Charles Schwab ( SCHW). The company has signed up about 5,000 new accounts since it launched in October, says Jeroen Veth, co-founder and CEO of Zecco and a veteran of Wall Street powerhouse Merrill Lynch. That type of growth may pale in comparison with the stratospheric growth rates posted by some Internet companies. But it's still impressive considering the sort of serious, heavily regulated industry in which Zecco is competing -- not to mention its own rigorous enrollment process (Zecco asks for a user's social security number, a form of U.S. government identification, employer information, and information on financial status, among other things). Zecco is able to give away free trades because the online brokerage business has long stopped making the lion's share of its profits on trading commissions, Veth says. Advances in technology have made trading platforms a commodity, meaning the real money comes from spreads in interest rates and margin lending, Veth says.
But given the huge amounts that the big online brokerages spend on overhead and marketing, they can't afford to pass up the trading fees, he says. "Their cost base is so huge they cannot forgo the revenue stream on commissions," he says. Zecco serves up ads on its site, and tapping into the fast-growing online ad market also is helping the company provide free trading. Zecco also aims to pioneer new ways that investors can exchange ideas about stocks. The company is developing an online financial portal that draws together news stories -- much like the services already offered by Yahoo! ( YHOO), Google ( GOOG), and Microsoft's ( MSFT) MSN site. But Zecco also is trying to take advantage of the growing online trend toward social networks to put together a community of investors that can share views about market developments. To this end, Zecco's site includes forums and a variety of blog postings that can be searched by a company's ticker symbol. This idea isn't new either -- Yahoo!'s site features a burgeoning message board group, and Google incorporates many blogs -- but Zecco hopes that putting all these elements together will make it the go-to destination for savvy investors. Still, Zecco's attempt to offer financial information about stocks remains a work in progress. The site can be confusing and difficult to navigate. And though Veth argues that a new generation of investors will be drawn to his company's community aspects, the road here could be much trickier than it was for social media darlings like News Corp.'s MySpace and Facebook, which play in much less serious markets.
Putting faith in postings about a particular stock can be as harmful as it is helpful, depending on how informed the author is or whether they have a hidden agenda. But Zecco's platform does provide investors who have already done their homework another arena to test ideas with a focused audience. The company also could force the bigger players to reconsider charging fees. Bank of America ( BAC), for example, introduced a free trading program just days after Zecco's October launch -- though it requires a $25,000 balance, as opposed to Zecco's $2,500. With its strategy of attempting to merge the best pieces of the financial Web, Zecco's fate is worth following.