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plimusIt took the internet to get people to pay for stuff that doesn’t really “exist” – the “virtual goods” that are a large part of so many online games and virtual reality communities. Want to get ahead in Farmville?Then you need a “shovel” – one that exists only inside your computer. You pay real money for it, though.

There are hundreds of thousands of similar “goods” around the internet – many of them used in virtual communities and social games, as well as on cellphones and regular computers. And while many virtual goods – such as software programs and games – are made and marketed by “real” companies, with their own sales departments, large numbers of these products are made by folks who are working on a side project to make a little extra money, and who do not have the marketing and sales resources to reach large numbers of potential customers.

In the past, such “manufacturers” had little choice but to try and make a deal with a large company that specialized in marketing, in order to get their program out to the masses – a deal that was usually to their disadvantage, and very difficult to put together. For the past several years, however, there’s been an alternative – the sales and marketing services provided by Israeli startup Plimus, which works with thousands of of vendors and affiliates who sell virtual goods all over the internet. With 2010 set to be a record year for the company, Plimus is now the world’s largest independent online reseller of virtual goods.

Plimus tries to provide all the back-end sales services virtual goods vendors need, says company product management director Eldad Ben-Tora. “Most of the writers of software, games, and virtual goods for social media platforms do a fine job of getting their product together, but are lost when it comes to selling, which is really a full-time job by itself, one they don’t have time for. They may even have customers, but there are so many complicated steps in getting the products into their hands,” says Ben-Tora. “We work with vendors on the sales side, making sure that they get the money they are supposed to for the goods they sell customers, despite the obstacles – thus leaving them free to do what they are good at, which is developing products.”

And those “obstacles” are manifold, says Ben-Tora. “In order to work with credit card companies in many foreign countries, for example, you need to have an account in a bank there – a complicated affair that entails a whole new set of worries.” And as a matter of fact, credit cards aren’t the universal means of payment that they they are in Israel and the U.S. “In Germany, for example, many online customers prefer to pay via bank transfer, while in France, most consumers use a local French credit card, as opposed to Mastercard or Visa.” Even those latter cards have esoteric rules, which, if not followed properly, will unnecessarily hold up payment. “Sellers who are using a subscription model have to bill the credit card companies every month. It’s an anti-fraud measure, but one that requires much extra work on the part of the seller – who in many cases is working alone and can’t afford to put extra time into the project, or hire someone else to help,” Ben-Tora says.

Taking care of those issues is exactly what Plimus does. “We have bank accounts in different countries, for example, and we have deals with local banks and credit card companies to clear payments, so the issue of international payment transfer is eliminated. We bill the customer, providing receipts and tax documents, take care of foreign currency issues, and in general handle the entire transfer process, releasing the virtual goods to the customer when we receive payment. We deduct a small fee and forward the rest of the money to the vendor’s account, successfully completing the sale with no inconvenience for buyer or seller,” Ben-Tora says.

It’s similar to what Paypal does, to an extent – but Plimus goes far beyond Paypal. “We offer a full sales platform, handling all of the back-end sales,” Ben-Tora says. Take coupons, for example. “The Plimus system uses a wizard that gets sellers up and running in minutes, and gives them total control on how to sell their product – one-time charge, subscription, etc. If they want to offer a coupon, they can specify the details – how much the coupon will deduct from the price, when, etc. – and we apply it to purchases as the vendor specifies. Our aim is to make this process as transparent to the vendor and customer as possible, with no extra effort on the part of either,” he says.

Another leg Plimus has over Paypal is in its innovative marketing services – helping vendors get the attention of customers, and getting “eyeballs” for their products, putting them in view of customers.  “Vendors can of course sell their company’s own products, but they can also sell other companies’ products as affiliates, keeping a percentage of the sales,” Ben-Tora says. While Plimus counts about 5,000 vendors – with as many as 100 new vendors joining every day – the company also has about 40,000 affiliates, meaning that a piece of software developed by a programmer in his or her spare time, with no marketing resources to speak of, could be sold by thousands of affiliates on websites around the world. “It’s a powerful marketing resource, and one that has enabled vendors to reach far more many customers than they could on their own,” Ben-Tora says.

With a package this complete, it’s little wonder that vendors have flocked to Plimus – giving it some $200 million in sales this year, with the company growing in terms of vendors and sales some 40%-50% in each of the past five years. Based in Herzliya, with sales offices in California, Plimus, which was established in 2001, has 80 employees, and is one of Israel’s biggest internet success stories, if not its most famous, Ben-Tora says.

It’s not for everyone, though. “Early on we made a strategic decision to stay away from questionable products – porn, internet gambling, even jewelry,” Ben-Tora says. The company actually vets vendors by calling the first five customers who purchase a product using the Plimus platform, whether directly from a vendor or from an affiliate. “We check to see that the customers are satisfied with what they received, that the product is as advertised and works properly. If it isn’t, we cut the responsible vendor loose,” says Ben-Tora, adding that “it’s our name that appears on the customer’s credit card bill, and our reputation is at stake as well.”

But Plimus is happy to do businesses with vendors who are on the up-and-up, says Ben-Tora. “There are no up-front fees, and anyone with legitimate virtual goods is welcome to join. We know we’ve helped many online vendors succeed in their internet sales efforts, and we’re proud of that,” he says, adding that the company is just as proud of the fact that they saved those vendors lots of internet sales headaches, by providing an all-in-one, easy to use sales and marketing platform!

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