“One of the top ten Tacoma e-Businesses of the year chosen for recognition during last week’s e-Business Day celebrations is a start-up (since Sept. 1999) company called Onfree.com.Onfree.com was chosen from over 30 companies nominated for the title by judges headed by Paul Ellis, with the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce.Ellis said he remembers Onfree.com receiving a particularly strong letter of nomination from a local company impressed with the benefits they gleaned from Onfree.com’s sponsor branding services.In judging, Ellis said, We simply used the criteria we had that matched most closely the e-businesses. It was hard to decide. It wasn’t `there’s ten companies and a huge gap to eleven.’ It was `we’ve got a lot of good companies in this town, and not all will be recognized.’ We’ll try to recognize them in the future.Onfree.com’s niche in the tech industry is the on-line communities they’ve developed that offer people with similar interests-apartment dwellers, divers, senior citizens and teachers, free internet access paid for by sponsors. The four communities to date are: ResidentsInfree, DiversInfree, TeachersInfree, and SeniorsInfree, and more affinity communities will soon follow for firemen and police officers. They connect to their affinity community to find information and links related to their particular interests. What they don’t find is hard-sell advertising. What they do find are sponsors inviting them to visit their linked site to find out more about their products and services.The savings each year to the customers signed on to those affinity communities is over $250 a year. Their other savings is time. Onfree.com has already done the work of checking thousands of similar interest sites to link their particular community to, so that the customer doesn’t have to spend hours surfing to find the best ones. Other benefits, besides the quality Internet service are free voice mail, free e-mail, and free long distance, as well as a free web page of their own.There are no monthly fees, no startup costs, and no obligation to buy anything from the sponsors.The man who came up with the Onfree.com concept was the company’s chairman, Mitch Davis.He arrived in Tacoma 19 years ago to work for Harley Davidson’s motor home retail division called Holiday Rambler. Davis said it was when he moved on to the financial services industry that he began to notice Internet companies taking off and I wanted to be a part of it, to come up with something viable. His concept for an Internet company became Onfree.com. It would be an Internet organization working with non-profit and not-for-profit organizations to help them find companies willing to pay sponsorship fees to support specific Internet communities whose members have the same interests.Senior citizens, for example, find everything particular to their needs, from financial advice to travel, Davis said. We look for the most value, the best content and the best presentation for our customers. We are very selective. We think less is more when it comes to the Internet. He credits his own parents, Pat and Elaine Lefkowitz, of Pembroke Pines, Fla. for his original SeniorsInfree concept. They were frustrated trying to get hooked up to the Internet, Davis said. In talking with them, I realized there was a whole community that probably was having the same problems and wanted Internet access that was simple.Now, he says, since the site went up in March, There are tens of thousands of seniors on-line nationally every day.To make the site even more personable, business professionals, from travel agents to financial advisors, will answer questions from site visitors through e-mail.Seniors who have signed on for the company’s free internet service are people like Frank Goulart, 68, of Emporia, VA, who surfs the net for nothing specific unless I want to look up something or roam around. He was paying $19.95 a month for that privilege. I’m glad I discovered them while surfing the net, Goulart said. They’ve saved me a few dollars. George Johnson, 79, is another customer. The St. Louis, MO, resident said he spends all his time on the net as a volunteer expert for the WW1.Askme.com site, answering questions on English grammar and punctuation. He said he was looking for a new, hopefully free, ISP server and found it through Seniorsinfree.com I find their server efficient and they have very kind, good customer service, he said. I feel guilty getting such great service for free!Seniors can get the SeniorsInfree CDs at senior centers and six-day-a-week access to customer service if they have any questions.Many of the seniors only have one telephone line so if they need help, they have to keep going on-line, then call back later for more help. Our customer service will take as long as it takes to help our customers get on-line, Davis said. That kind of customer service almost guarantees that When they log on with us, they stay with us. He said senior citizens often attend classes at senior citizen centers to learn how to get on the Internet, and can find SeniorsInfree CD’s at them.Onfree.com continues to add new concepts and products to their line. They also sell CD’s to companies who want an opportunity to have their company name on the customer’s homepage. It’s called product branding.For example, Pacific Life Insurance Company purchased CD’s for about four million teachers nationwide. Their advertisement appears right on the website each time the teacher logs on.What Onfree.com does is offer this same opportunity to small, local companies. They recently purchased the equipment needed to make the CD’s right at their Tacoma offices on Pacific Avenue.There was a need for small businesses to have this opportunity as well, Davis said, and we hope to fill that. Photo: Onfree.com’s chairman, Mitch Davis, pulls CD’s from the company’s new CD sponsor branding machine. “
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