Plastic surgeon Sydney Sites Struggle Despite Significant Benefits

By DAN MORSE

Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Compared with selling, say, sofas over the Internet, flogging plastic surgery online makes perfect sense.

After all, privacy is one of the few proven ways to make money on the Web. Just consider the options facing someone thinking about a face-lift:

One: Schlep down to the nearest surgeon, and ask a complete stranger to illustrate how you would look with upgraded parts.

Two: Stay home (or stay at the office). Log onto the Internet and download “morphing” software. Then, scan in a picture of yourself and point-and-click your way to a new you. The Web site will then direct you to a local physician.

The latter option renders shopping for plastic surgery less embarrassing. Only if you are pleased with what you would look like do you go talk to strangers — no doubt in a more confident state.

So why are so many plastic-surgery Web sites gasping for life?

There are lots of reasons. Some are specific to the companies’ bad decisions, and others are general to the malaise of all things dot-com. In the end, one or two major players will likely remain standing. So they are racing to amass online directories of as many of the nation’s 6,000 certified plastic surgeons as they can enroll. The sites typically charge doctors for the listings or charge consumers for the financing plans they manage.

Perhaps the most aggressive site is thatlook.com, based in Stroudsburg, Pa. Web site viewers are hit with this offer: “Cosmetic surgery for no money down and payments as low as $38 a week.” On either side of that pitch are two perfect models, male and female, whose images suggest recent visits to some rather skilled surgeons.

If only more people would see the site, laments Gerard Powell, chief executive of the company. “People don’t know about it,” says Mr. Powell, who candidly admits he has made some mistakes along the way. His company sponsored two Nascar races this year: the thatlook.com 300, a stock-car race, and the thatlook.com 200, a pickup-truck race. There weren’t many female viewers. And even if they were watching, the TV announcers didn’t spend much time explaining what thatlook.com actually does. For the company, the cost of the sponsorships was valued at $252,000, representing 2 1/2 months of the company’s advertising budget, yet the races only generated three new patients, Mr. Powell says. Mr. Powell’s Web site offers free software that consumers can download. That is what Melanie Solomon, a Missouri mother of two, did earlier this year. “I knew I wanted larger [breasts]. But I wasn’t exactly sure” what size, she says. So, sitting in her home with husband Christopher, she scanned in a topless picture of herself. Then she morphed her way to D-cup from B-cup. Ms. Solomon was able to keep the images securely on her own computer.

She got her surgery done at the Plastic Surgery Aesthetic Center outside Kansas City. There, patient counselor Carla Casey-Smith says the Internet-available morphing can help people get over the hump. “The worst part of the whole thing is coming in and talking to a doctor,” she says. She cautions that the software should explain to users that it is only a guide, and there are limitations to what can be done. That said, she asserts, if the sites were more widely used, plastic-surgery operations could “go through the ceiling.”

For now, though, thatlook.com needs financing — $2 million to $5 million for advertising in order to turn a profit, Mr. Powell says. He charges plastic surgeons $2,500 to $10,000 a month to have thatlook.com manage all their marketing efforts.

Point, Click, Nip, Tuck

A sampling of plastic-surgery Web sites and how they are doing.

Company/Status

thatlook.com/Shares trading at 25 cents

iEnhance.com/Expected loss this year: $2 million

eBody.com/Staff slashed, up for sale

Idealme.com/Shares of parent firm, Plastic Surgery Co.,

trading at $2.31

PersonalSurgeon.com/Just launched in October

Source: The companies

Others in the industry say Mr. Powell is charging plastic surgeons too much. “Physicians are cheap,” says Elliott Jenkins, iEnhance.com’s chief financial officer, of Salt Lake City. His company has linked with McGhan Medical Corp., a unit of Inamed Corp., which makes saline breast implants. If a doctor’s office pays $950 annually to iEnhance.com (www.ienhance.com) (which gets them a posting on the Internet), the doctor essentially gets reimbursed by McGhan Medical, according to both iEnhance and McGhan.

IEnhance.com expects to post a $2 million loss this year on revenue of $1.1 million to $1.3 million, Mr. Jenkins says. The company received $4 million in venture funding, of which $1.5 million remains, he adds. Mr. Jenkins says their “low-cost provider” concept will work, and he expects to turn a profit next year. IEnhance boasts 1,400 doctors on its site, which is far more than its competitors, he says.

Meantime, eBody.com, in Minneapolis, raised about $5 million in financing, but has fallen on tough times — shelving plans for an initial public offering and slashing staff. Dr. Scott Ross, the company’s founder, says with all the competition, “We’re all banging heads against each other.” Last week, Dr. Ross, who is still with eBody, stated that his company is forming “strategic partnerships” and added: “If the price is right, everything is for sale, and eBody is no exception.”

In addition to these sites, many doctor’s offices have posted their own Internet sites, albeit usually less snazzy. A Google.com search for “plastic surgery and financing” yielded 8,760 hits. And one more big player: The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, based in Arlington Heights, Ill., which runs an Internet-referral service . This site is relatively subdued and doesn’t offer any of the financing hooks.

By comparison, some of the private sites make some doctors squeamish — a factor working against the sites. There is even one in California, bidforsurgery.com, which follows an eBay model. In general, critics say that aggressive, online medical sites promote the cheapest doctors, not the most qualified. And this is surgery, after all.

Some of the Web sites have further hurt their reputation by steering consumers to certain doctors, says Brian Mullaney, who launched PersonalSurgeon.com two months ago in New York. At his own site, he says, “We don’t push any [certain] doctors.”

To attract doctors, he offers free online postings, but plans to start charging next year. To attract consumers, PersonalSurgeon.com has placed full-page ads in The New York Times. PersonalSurgeon.com offers consumers before-and-after morphing. Consumers send in a picture (either traditional pictures or electronic ones). The company produces a rendering of how the patient might look. Mr. Mullaney shrugs off the slowdown in the tech sector, saying it presents an opportunity to hire Web site designers and computer-savvy people: “It’s a buyer’s market for talent.”