It's dawn at a Los Angeles apartment overlooking the Hollywood Hills. Laura Sweet, an advertising creative director in her early 40s, sits at a computer and begins to surf the Net. She searches intently, unearthing such bizarre treasures for sale as necklaces for trees and tattoo-covered pigs. As usual, she posts them on a shopping site called ThisNext.com. Asked why in the world she spends so many hours each week working for free, she answers: "It's a labor of love."
Later this morning, a half-hour's drive to the west, a serial entrepreneur named Gordon Gould strolls into the Santa Monica offices of ThisNext. Gould has managed to entice an army of volunteers, including Sweet, to pour passion and intelligence into his site for free. Traffic on ThisNext is soaring, with unique visits nearly tripling in a year, to 3.5 million monthly. What's in it for the volunteer workers? "They can build their brands," Gould says. "In their niches, they can become mini-Oprahs."