"Go into CyberSpace." More than a century ago, Horatio Alger pointed budding entrepreneurs west. Today, his finger would be aimed at a modem. The Internet has been the entrepreneurial gold rush of the 1990s. From Amazon.com to Yahoo!, young entrepreneurs have quickly latched on to emerging technology and almost as speedily amassed personal fortunes that extend into seven figures or more.
But are the glory days over? Not hardly. "Plenty of opportunities remain on the Internet," says Jaclyn Easton, a computer columnist for the Los Angeles Times who illustrated her optimistic claim in StrikingItRich.com (McGraw-Hill), a book that profiles 23 successful Web sites.
Even so, the days are gone when a business could just put up a site and expect traffic to show up. Bruce Judson, author of HyperWars (Scribner), logs 25 hours per week just looking at new sites, but most are failures. "Maybe 5 percent are good," he laments. With well over 100 million Web pages cluttering the Net, you need to put up a site that's a lot better than the competition's, says Judson.
The encouraging news is, other entrepreneurs are still doing it--launching Web sites that attract traffic and snare substantial revenues. Read on to discover how five thriving Web sites--some that already have high Web visibility, and others that are likely to soon--are distinguishing themselves from the crowd. They've all staked out a niche, then pursued it energetically and creatively, with their focus on giving customers services and products they can't easily get elsewhere. Can you do the same? You bet--just study what the following winners are doing, and apply those lessons to your own niche.
When you think Internet, does your mind conjure up white lace, champagne and wedding bells? David Liu's did. In 1996, he and partners Rob Fassino, Michael Wolfson and Carley Roney decided the Net was just the place for couples to shop before they tie the knot. It seems the partners were right. "We get 250,000 users monthly--not counting repeat visitors--which is four times more than our nearest competitor," says CEO Liu, 33. "And we're signing up more than 1,000 new members a day."
Check out the site, and the reasons for the heavy traffic are clear. The Knot Inc. offers one-stop wedding information and planning--from an online gift registry and a tool that searches for just the right gown to chat rooms, write-ups about honeymoon destinations and pages of advice. "This medium is about service," says Liu. "Everything on the site serves the consumers' needs."
The age demographics of those planning first and second marriages match up well with the Internet's appeal to a young crowd, creating an opportunity any entrepreneur could love. "Our prime audience is 18 to 35," says Liu, who adds that 80 percent of the site's visitors are women.
Best of all, the would-be-wed are prized by advertisers, who know weddings trigger an avalanche of spending--on the wedding itself, as well as on the honeymoon and new household. "We wanted a site that would generate ad revenues from day one, and we did," says Liu.
One key to The Knot's success is flexibility. Originally funded by AOL's Greenhouse program, The Knot created its own Web site in 1997, and traffic is now split 60 percent via AOL, 40 percent via The Knot's own site. The company is also exploring new ways to increase revenue. "We originally thought we could be profitable on ad revenues alone, but we've now entered into e-commerce arrangements," says Liu, meaning The Knot now acts as a full-line wedding retailer. More cash will come from ancillary deals--a three-book contract with Bantam and a 13-part wedding series on PBS. The company is also considering an initial public offering.
Add it up, and in 1998, The Knot garnered $1.2 million. "Every day in the Internet business there are surprises," Liu says, "but the greatest surprise has been the sheer volume of opportunity."
Ask And You Shall Receive
Only sports junkies need apply for admission to OfficialStuff.com. In a nation packed with millions of hard-core fans, this site may be just the ticket to finding authentic programs for major athletic events including the Super Bowl, World Series, NCAA Final Four tournament and more. This may generate a big yawn to nonsports fans, but for enthusiasts, OfficialStuff is providing coveted souvenirs (at around $15 per program) that aren't easily obtainable elsewhere. Some $250,000 in orders poured in during just the first six weeks after the company's November 1998 launch, according to Eric Douglass, OfficialStuff's founder and CEO.
"I looked around the Web and couldn't believe this opportunity had been missed," says Douglass, 38. Deals were easily cut with the National Football League, National Hockey League and the governing bodies of other organized sports leagues--mainly because, according to Douglass, the company offered a new outlet for selling this type of merchandise.
Douglass is off to a running start, busily hunting avenues to grow OfficialStuff's product line. He's selling program subscription packages--a six-month, six-program subscription costs $69.95 and includes events such as the Kentucky Derby and golf's Masters championship--and is also mounting a "Raiders of the Lost Archives" tool where visitors can post memorabilia they want and OfficialStuff will attempt to fill the order.
"Our aim is to be the Amazon.com of sports programs, whether it's for the Tour de France, the World Cup or the World Series," says Douglass. "[An estimated] 65 million people watch an event like the Super Bowl. If we can sell to just 1 percent of them, that's nearly $1 million in sales. That's why I'm so optimistic about this business. Look around the Web, and there are still businesses people aren't doing--and OfficialStuff.com is one of them."
Touch and Go
Chew on this: The printing market in the United States accounts for more than $132 billion in annual sales. "[But] walking into a local print shop is usually a terrible experience; the error rate in traditional shops is 10 percent. That's made establishing our [business] on the Web much easier," says 39-year-old Royal Farros, founder and CEO of iPrint.com, a Web site that's gunning for a giant slice of the quick-print market for letterhead, business cards, greeting cards and more.
Exactly how does this site handle printing? Very well, smiles Farros, who says his error rate is less than 1 percent. "And we deliver the printed products at prices that are 25 to 50 percent below retail," he adds.
How does he do it? IPrint's secret is products that are truly WYSIWYG. Using design tools on the iPrint site, customers create their own documents quickly and easily, says Farros, who claims interactivity is key to iPrint's success. "So much of the Internet is static information. We offer interactivity in the visual dimension. Customers have fun creating their own products online," Farros says.
Farros won't release exact sales figures but says the company grew at a rate of 35 percent per month in 1998 and achieved sales of more than $1 million. Not bad for a virtual company that was launched in 1996 with seed money provided entirely by Farros (from selling a desktop publishing software company he'd founded).
In a bigger play, though, Farros has moved to co-opt possible avenues of competition: "We're providing private-label services to many large office supply chains--OfficeMax, for instance," he says. Log on to OfficeMax's Web site (http://www.officemax.com), place a print order, and you'll use iPrint's tools and technology without necessarily knowing it. "We see great potential for our private-label side," says Farros.
Even so, he adds, "I'm terrified about changes in this marketplace. With the Internet, you never know what's coming next. All we can do is build our brand--and make sure we stay ahead of the curve."
It worked for Godiva and 1-800-FLOWERS. Now Mike Lannon, 40, who started his retail wine company in 1997 and took it online a year later, is betting the $150,000 he invested in SendWine.com that wine will become the Internet's next big must-give item.
But that's easier said than done. A rat's nest of antiquated state laws regulate alcohol sales, and in many cases, it's illegal for businesses to ship alcohol across state lines. Finding a solution to this problem was the cornerstone of Lannon's bright idea.
"We're building a nationwide network of local wine shops," he says. "We have about 100 retailers, and we can easily--and legally--arrange shipments to more than 80 percent of the U.S. population."
How does it work? The consumer purchases a bottle of wine through the Web site, and SendWine, in turn, contacts an affiliated wine retailer near the recipient. The bottle is wrapped in SendWine.com's custom packaging--a white linen napkin with a gold seal--then shipped via overnight or two-day delivery. "We're fast, we're legal, and we make sure the packaging is distinctive and suitable for a special gift," says Lannon, who adds that most of his wines are priced upwards of $50. "Nobody else is pursuing this market in quite the way we are."
Strong as his idea is, Lannon isn't taking success for granted. "We're in a race," he says. "We have to build our brand and our infrastructure of wine shops. If we do both--and stay focused on delivering high-quality service to our customers--we'll succeed."
"The Net has been a lifesaver for us. We would have closed shop without it," says Barb McCann, who along with her husband, Jim, owns The Chocolate Vault in Tecumseh, Michigan, a picturesque small town about 60 miles west of Detroit. "We couldn't compete with the malls, but now the Web is bringing us customers from all over the country."
The Chocolate Vault isn't likely to become a multimillion dollar Web mega-success. Frankly, it's not shooting for the same level of Internet stardom that the other sites profiled here crave. But that doesn't mean it's not a significant triumph for the McCanns.
Back in 1997, Barb and Jim faced up to the numbers. Profits were dwindling to the point where closing shop seemed the only option. But Barb had heard about the Web, and even though she was then 54 and had no computer background, she decided she could get into it on her own. After spending a few hundred dollars--for a Web hosting service and Microsoft's FrontPage Web-authoring program--Barb launched her site in November 1997.
Has it succeeded? One-third of the McCanns' total business now comes from Web sales, and the numbers are soaring. For the Christmas 1998 season, sales were up 290 percent over 1997 figures. The daily visitor count now averages 150, with about 50 orders coming in daily. "This has made all the difference to our business," says Barb, whose shop sells more than 100 varieties of homemade chocolates, from mint patties and raisin clusters to mocha truffles and chocolate-covered ginger.
How has The Chocolate Vault prospered? Lots of shoestring, low-cost marketing techniques keep luring traffic to the site. For instance, a chatty newsletter, ChocoNews--written and published by Barb every month or so--goes to 2,900 subscribers. "It helps bring customers back," she says. "About 20 percent of our buyers are repeat customers." The site also features customer testimonials and folksy touches such as "Choco-Poetry"--odes celebrating the candy. It runs contests, usually with small prizes, and will exchange links with virtually any site that asks.
But probably the biggest factor in The Chocolate Vault's online success is that despite the anonymity of the Web, Barb stresses the personal touch. For example, customer e-mail is answered the same day it's received, if possible. "We want our Internet customers to feel they're getting small-town service," says Barb. "When you visit us online, I want you to feel like you've just walked into our store and that you know Jim and me. That's the key to our business: We're real people, and we care about our customers and our chocolates. Come to our site, and you'll see that's true."
In the race to net success, it's full speed ahead, right? watch out--some road blocks could stop you in your tracks.
It's easy to build a poor site--use lots of slow-loading graphics and make it difficult for visitors to buy [your products]," says Jaclyn Easton, a computer columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of StrikingItRich.com (McGraw-Hill).
Who would do that? Unfortunately, thousands of entrepreneurs doom their Web sites by erecting clumsy pages that take forever to load. "There's just a low level of patience for poor Web design when people are ready to part with their money on the Internet. They want to get to the goods very quickly," says Paul LeBlanc, president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont, and director of its Internet Strategy Management Program.
To get it right the first time, pick your niche--find an area where the Web has unique appeal to customers, and discard all preconceptions. Who would have thought a wedding site would prosper? Or a print shop? Today's Netpreneurs are rewriting every rule in yesteryear's business books.
Simplification is also key. "You want a simple, straightforward design. People need to be able to navigate the site easily," says LeBlanc, who advises testing every element of a site on the 28.8 and 33.6 Kbps modems that remain the primary avenues for connection to the Internet. Keep the customer's technology in mind.
Then be ready to keep changing the site: "Static sites are death," says LeBlanc. "You have to be prepared to make an ongoing investment in keeping it fresh."
And you can never forget the basics of doing business successfully anywhere: "The best Web sites excel in customer service," says Easton. "You need to answer e-mail in hours, not days, and you should put your toll-free number on every page so customers can also call."
Follow these basic principles, and you'll likely stand out--even among the tens of millions of companies already doing business on the Web.
The Chocolate Vault, (800) 525-1165, firstname.lastname@example.org
iPrint Inc., (650) 298-8500
The Knot Inc., (888) 933-KNOT
OfficialStuff.com, (404) 261-9975