– Zywave Inc. found success helping insurance brokers make their services stand out. Now the Milwaukee company’s former president is setting out to do the same for other industries.

Jim Emling, who worked his way up from a job as Zywave’s first programmer, co-founded WhyHigh Technology LLC a year ago with the idea that service providers as varied as plumbers and financial planners need as much help distinguishing themselves as insurance brokers do.

“They suffer from the same problem,” Emling said. “They want to showcase how they’re different, but the world wants to commoditize them.”

WhyHigh, Emling says, is the world’s first social, referral-driven marketplace. Think Facebook meets Angie’s List. Consumers create free accounts and connect with people they know. Then they can tap this network of family and friends for referrals and book appointments online.

“If you want to put a patio in your back yard, you’re either going to buy a subscription on Angie’s List or ask a friend or neighbor for a referral. That’s what we’re trying to automate,” Emling said.

Service providers pay a subscription fee to join the site, plus more for specific services, Emling said.

WhyHigh launched the business part of the platform in November and has mostly small businesses on the platform. The firms are adding their own referrals and preparing to e-vite their customers to refer them on WhyHigh when the consumer side opens in the next few weeks, Emling said.

L.H. Krueger & Son, a roofing and exterior maintenance company, has seen its revenue stream from Angie’s List decrease as that company’s business model has changed.

“Jim’s approach seems to be completely different,” Krueger said. “It’s referral-based but by people you know. You know those people will give you an honest recommendation.”