Making money by starting a business in the virtual world known as "Second Life" has been touted as an economic wave of the future.
But for the moment at least, pulling it off isn't exactly a reality.
"Second Life" entrepreneurs looking to strike it rich or just make a few extra dollars face a daunting combination of both the traditional problems faced by any small business owner in the "first" world plus new challenges unique to the youthful, Internet-based economy of "Second Life."
These entrepreneurs sell everything from virtual clothes and virtual art to virtual house furniture and virtual tattoos. But stories like that of Anshe Chung -- "Second Life's" first real-life millionaire, who made her money selling land -- are rarities.
Only 145 people made more than $5,000 as "Second Life" entrepreneurs in July; 865 people made at least $1,000. With about 450,000 users logging on each month, such numbers mean that for all the press hype, only a very small fraction of the population is making any significant amount of money within the Second Life world.
Speaking candidly in interviews and discussion sessions at the "Second Life" Community Convention here this weekend, entrepreneurs said they must consistently deal not only with traditional issues of brand recognition and quality control, but also technical difficulties that impede access to clients. They also must compete against Fortune 500 companies who give goods and services away for free in "Second Life" in the hopes of turning a profit in the "first" world.
Veronica Brown is a successful clothing designer and vendor operating on "Second Life." Her clothing sells widely in the virtual world, allowing here to lend a hand to younger, less well-known designers by giving them free display space in her stores.
But, she said, it is almost impossible to find reliable employees to work in her shops. Most "Second Life" players do not take their virtual jobs seriously, and business-minded characters want to work for themselves, not for somebody else.
"The players are going to do exactly that: They're going to play," Brown said.
To many, a virtual environment implies freedom from traditional business protocol, but "Second Life" entrepreneurs said that such challenges, including advertising and generating buzz for their products, continue to be some of their most daunting concerns.
Because "Second Life" supports a younger economy it has yet to resolve many market weaknesses, and so its businesses can suffer more than they would in the real world.
Sheffie Cochran is a banker with over $20,000 in her "Second Life" vault. She has never worked on Wall Street, much less as a bank teller, but as the virtual character (known as an avatar) Lindsay Druart in "Second Life," she runs the L & L banking trust, providing loans and savings accounts for 400 people.
"I've never worked at a bank in my life! I had to pull out Business Week and all kinds of books to learn what to do," said Cochran. She said she earns $500 a month on "Second Life," enough to pay her rent in Augusta, Ga.
Even though the Linden dollars Cochran trades in can be redeemed for real U.S. dollars, her business is conducted with virtually no contract enforcement. She does not even have full contact information for many of the people she lends to.
As a result, she said that ultimately her business comes down to one thing: "It's all about trust," she said.