Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I think I was here before

What an interesting ride...

The idea behind was to market website design services to small, local businesses. These are businesses that have a very limited geographical market, such as family-owned pizza shops or auto repair shops. Such businesses have no use for the global market (or even the national market) traditionally served by the Web, and because of this, they've given very little thought to building a website.

Pressure is on local companies to establish a web presence, however. Their traditional marketing channel, the phone book, is losing market share, as people become even more comfortable doing their pre-sale shopping online. Shoppers have been turning to search engines to find the products they seek, even when they plan to make the purchase at brick-and-mortar locations. The losers in this picture are those small, local businesses without an effective web presence. Those that do catch on often pay hobbyists for low-price, ineffective sites, or they go to boutiques that charge high design fees as well as high hosting fees for better sites. Even those well-designed sites tend to get little traffic, as they are lost in searches to the national chains.

Small local businesses have a few unique needs typically not addressed by traditional website design. These companies rarely need true e-commerce capabilities, yet they still need to be designed to inspire action by the visitor. Just as importantly, these sites need to be search-engine optimized (the right way) for local results. It isn't important for a pizza shop to rank high on a search for "pizza" but it is important that the shop ranks high on a search for "pizza [town-name]". Most designers seem to miss that point.

Run with the idea didn't miss that point. They knew what needed to be done locally, but to be very successful at it, they needed local, physical presence in those communities. They needed right-minded people to guide the local businesses in getting the job done right.

They didn't want to be a boutique. They wanted to be thousands of boutiques, scattered across the U.S., with the advantage of a central development team and the economy of centralized hosting. So the plan was to franchise the concept. And they thought they had all the pieces to do just that.

They started with the domain. Their domain name,, was perhaps the only two-letter domain name that had never actually been put in use. It cost them dearly to acquire, but it held a potential gold mine; without actually providing any content, the domain was ranked well inside Alexa's top 100,000 sites in the world. So exposure shouldn't have been a problem.

Next, they acquired a boutique that had already demonstrated an understanding of the local business' needs, and supplemented that by hiring one of the top names in Cold Fusion development, Hal Helms, to head their programming efforts. Because the hosting operation was going to do some serious growth, they pulled together a team of serious systems administrators, and hired a couple guys (including yours truly) to head up the technical support department (no outsourcing for this company!). Their SEO squad was trained by one of the best in the business: Bruce Clay. They even hired a crack team of franchise marketers to sell the concept.

Did anyone get the license number of that truck?

Ducks in a row, they launched their website mid-June. The visitor count soared.

And one month later, went out of business. The one thing they didn't count on was that no one was interested in learning more about how to become a franchisee.

Now, until they closed their doors, I was restricted from talking about them... trade secrets and all. I was released from that restriction when they released me from their payroll. If anyone cares, I can offer up my more detailed opinions on what went wrong, but for now I'll say this.

Any true entrepreneur should know that you can't expect any start-up to turn a profit during the first 2-3 years. These guys didn't give the business the time it required. They expected too much, too fast. And now a good idea is left for someone else to capitalize on.

And I'm back where I was four months ago.

Anyone in Tampa Bay need an experienced IT manager?

No comments: