Among the top qualities of successful entrepreneurs, flexibility and open communication are right near the top. But in the case of Andrew Fretwell and JoAnn Griffith, partners of the Internet-based Advanced Page Systems Inc., these qualities are their lifeblood: Running their business from two home offices in Cape Coral, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, the entrepreneurs have yet to meet in person.
Before starting Advanced Page Systems, Fretwell, 43, was involved in a variety of jobs, from professional musician to shiatsu therapist. In 1996, he started Advanced Page Systems, originally an multilevel marketing (MLM) company that designed Web sites for clients. Griffith, 53, who had a career in restaurant management and development, jumped on board that same year, creating Web designs for clients. Although the two had only spoken on the phone, they decided to join forces in 1998. They then refocused the company and launched several subsidiaries, including Realtors Express, an e-commerce solutions service site for real estate professionals; Easy Store Fronts, which offers e-commerce solutions for small businesses; Domain Registrars, a service for users who want to register a domain; Virtual Express Hosting, a Web-hosting service; and Virtual Express Systems, a real-time credit card processing service. The company is expected to gross $100,000 this year.
Here's a look at how Fretwell and Griffith manage their business four states apart.
HomeOfficeMag.com: How did the company get started?
Fretwell: I originally started the business as an MLM company, and Jo wasn't involved at that time. People didn't have an understanding about the Internet so I had this great idea. I would have these really simple forms that people could fill out and fax, and the company would create Web sites for them [based on that information]. I created the MLM business based on that [idea], and as the MLM side of it died out, I ended up with all these clients that wanted Web design. That's what really got me in the Web business.
HomeOfficeMag.com: How did Advanced Page Systems evolve into the company it is today?
Fretwell: We started the virtual side of this business not long ago, and that really became the successful part of the business. Our first target market was real estate agents, and we started Realtors Express in the mid-'98. We wanted to make it really simple for them to upload their own listings and manage their own Web site rather than having to depend on programmers to do it.
Then in the beginning of 1999, we launched Virtual Express Systems, where people could create online shopping carts and e-commerce systems instantly as well. We would be classed with competitors such as Yahoo! Store. We did a lot of research [on similar Web sites] and found that many of these stores say you can create a Web site in 10 minutes. Jo and I went to these companies and painstakingly tried out their different online solutions for creating online stores. Jo will confer with me that if you were a beginner, you wouldn't be able to do it.
Griffith: I think it took me two hours to make an iCat free Web site. That's when iCat wasn't as complicated as it is now. It was just awful, and I was so frustrated. I thought I would be there for a week. With our service, we eliminated anything that was confusing or time-consuming so we could make creating a Web site easier.
HomeOfficeMag.com: Since the company is based in two different offices, is it difficult to run the business?
Fretwell: Because the billing system is online, [the business is basically] managed centrally. I think the only difficulty we have sometimes is that we don't have face-to-face communication. Sometimes we misunderstand each other in e-mails or on the phone. In the beginning [especially], in our e-mails back and forth to each other, sometimes I would say something, which wasn't what I meant, and vice versa. But generally we get along very well and we're both very self-motivated.
Griffith: I think that's true with any kind of e-mail communication. We learned how we each interpret things. Sometimes when I e-mail, I wonder if I should be really detailed and draw a picture for Andy, or if he needs to draw a picture for me. We both have a lot of gut feelings, and [when dealing with] different projects and clients, they've proven to be true a lot.
HomeOfficeMag.com: What are the benefits of working at home?
Fretwell: It's not just working at home [that's great], it's working on the Internet. For example, I came down this morning to check my e-mail, and there were four orders for domain registration on our automated system. In other words, people can go online in the middle of the night, register a domain name through our system, and pay by credit card. It goes into our merchant account, and it's totally automated. So it's a business that runs itself. Yes, we need to be there and we need to take care of it, but if I want to take my kids out to play soccer, I can do that. So, for me, it's not just about a home business-it's about a home business combined with the Internet. Having core expertise-in other words, systems that run themselves without interaction from us-is the real benefit.
HomeOfficeMag.com: What future plans do you have for Advanced Page Systems?
Fretwell: We want to have the company grow so that we, hopefully, become an interesting buyout option for a bigger company. We'd really like to see someone take the company and run with it and promote it the way it should be promoted. We don't have the resources right now to promote it as much as we'd like to.
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