This is a slightly edited version of a story to be carried in tomorrow’s Merc

It sounds like a 1999 dot-com spin: If you’re lucky, you’ll enter a few business cards on the site of San Mateo start-up www.jigsaw.com, and get some cash back.

Jigsaw is launching a platform where users can buy, sell and trade business cards. You can only make money, though, if other people think your contacts are worth something. So getting rich off Jigsaw is a longshot.

It’s just the latest in a wave of companies following eBay’s model, seeking to have users do all the work. InnerSell, of San Francisco, is another start-up, founded this year, doing something similar (and backed by Draper Fisher Jurvetson).

Jigsaw Chief Executive Officer Jim Fowler says social networking plays, i.e., Friendster and LinkedIn, are good for things like dating or job leads. But not for giving or getting sales contacts. That’s why he’s built a market-place for people who don’t know each other. He says salespeople will love his site because without it they consume about a third of their time searching for the right people to contact and then hunting down their details. He should know: He was a sales executive at three companies, most recently vice president of sales at Digital Impact.

Venture capitalists appear to believe him. Fowler raised $750,000 seed money in December 2003 from Menlo Park’s El Dorado Ventures. And when Fowler started looking for his next round of money in July, Palo Alto’s Norwest Venture Partners signed a check immediately, on condition that Fowler wouldn’t shop around for other offers — landing Fowler another $5.2 million.

The site officially launches today tomorrow, though was blogged recently by Rafe Needleman. It has been up and running in test mode since May. With no marketing, users typed in the contact details from 205,606 business cards as of Thursday.

Fowler says cash won’t be exchanged until next month, because he’s still working on how automate the process. “”Before Jan. 31,” he promises.

The system is based on points. Enter a business card’s details — consisting of a name, title, company, e-mail and address — and you get five points. Cell-phone numbers aren’t entered, because Fowler thinks they’re too intrusive.

Once you accumulate 100 points, you can cash them in, a dollar for every five points — provided there’s a buyer of your contacts.

If within 30 days another user correctly “”challenges” the information you gave — for example points out that someone has moved — you lose 10 points. If no one challenges, you gain five more points.

It’s the ordering of contacts where Jigsaw also makes money. Sales professionals can choose to pay $25 a month to search its database for contacts. Fowler figures that a majority of sales people will find $25 easy to justify (most companies only require a receipt for expenses above $25, so Fowler bets that’s a good price point). Each contact costs $1, so that a paying user can get 25 contacts per month.

Finally, though, if a user doesn’t want to pay, they can order contacts by drawing down from points they’ve built up — each contact costs five points. “”Pay or play,” explains Fowler. It takes work: You have to have add at least 25 contacts a month to keep using the service for free.

Users can get a free two-week trial by going to the site.

Several users said they like Jigsaw better than some of the “”social networking” companies that have launched recently, including Mountain View’s LinkedIn, and
Palo Alto’s Spoke. LinkedIn has acknowledged that is more useful for recruiters and people looking for jobs, not sales leads.

Scott Lucas, who works for Dale Carnegie Sales Training in San Francisco, said he has contact names, but needs Jigsaw to find their contact details. He’s already closed deals by using Jigsaw, including one with Camelbak, a Petaluma backpack company. “”It makes it so much easier,” said Lucas.

He found 50 contacts through searching Jigsaw by area code. Jigsaw also lets you search in several other ways, including by a mix of keywords in a person’s name, title, e-mail address or department, and so on.

It then tells you how many contacts the database has. If you select one, it gives you the full contact details, and deducts points from your balance — or asks for a credit card.

John Fales, a sales manager at Cupertino’s PostX Corporation, said Jigsaw has helped him get to people faster. He found services like Hoovers, Dunn & Bradstreet and others are good at pointing him to senior people in organizations, but not at listing lower managers in charge of daily business.

Ken Adler, director of sales at OpenCountry, a Belmont supplier of system management software for Linux, says he’s using it “”like crazy” and that his company is paying for the product. “”It saved me months and months of trying to network into companies,” he said.

How about privacy concerns? Adler, for one, says the service might help targeted companies by saving them hundreds of calls or e-mail spam from salespeople calling them in search of the right person. If salespeople get to the right people quicker, Adler said, wrong people aren’t hassled — and everybody wins. “”It’s more surgical,” he said.

UPDATE: From the e-mail responses I’ve gotten on this, it seems I should have delved into the “annoyance” issue a bit more. Here’s a brief Q&A follow up with Jim Fowler on some of this. I based my questions on response I got from readers.

Q: How does a business or person opt out information being given to
Jigsaw and then redistributed like spam?

Fowler: Jigsaw is not a list that members purchase and use for SPAM.
Members do get contacts on Jigsaw but use them for one-to-one, BtoB sales
purpose. Spamming is strictly prohibited. Asking how to opt out of Jigsaw is like asking to opt out of Hoover’s or InfoUSA (can’t be done).

Q: Does Jigsaw match its information with the Direct Marketing Association’s no-mail-preference list and the national do-not-call list so that Jigsaw omits from its database those businesses and people who do not want information redistributed?

Fowler: Jigsaw does not allow any sort of private information on the
system, including Yahoo, AOL and Hotmail emails, for example. Mobile
numbers are also strictly prohibited. The national DNC list pertains only
to private (home) phone numbers.

Q: With Jigsaws contact lists, sales people could distribute information that was intended for a single business contact rather than for public distribution. For example, some have experienced vendors at conferences who hawk for business cards. Will they now indiscriminately post information from all their “business contacts”?

Fowler: Not sure I understand this question. Jigsaw only deals with
information found on a business card. The average person shows up on many
databases as a result of this information being handed out freely (most
people are completely unaware of this fact). That said, Jigsaw’s low cost
compared to traditional data companies will certainly make this data more
publicly accessible.

Q: Some businesses, particularly those associated with home addresses, do not want their contact information widely distributed.

Fowler: This is the reason we do not allow emails on Jigsaw that are
potentially private (Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, etc.). If we cannot find a
website with a public address associated with the company the contact cannot
be entered into Jigsaw. If we ever have a report of a home address or phone
number (we haven’t yet), it will be removed immediately. If an address can
be found on a business website it is public information.

Q: Small businesses are innudated already with unsolicited mail because of public information due to owning real estate, registering a DBA (“Doing-business-as”), and so forth. In short: What may be a boon for salepeople may be a bust for businesses wanting to limited contact.

Fowler: Transparent information almost always results in huge increases in
productivity. Sales people waste a TON of time, theirs and all the people
they cold call at a target organization, trying to get to the right person.
Sales people HAVE to call people they don’t know to make sales (even sales
people from companies wanting limited contact). If they can call the right
person, and the right person has the power to set preferences and provide
instructions, the whole process becomes much more efficient and loses
friction. This is the aim of Jigsaw.