Putting the 'e' into commerce
Gradually building up their companies, local entrepreneurs are finding their niches by basing their businesses on the Internet.
Special to The Herald
It all seemed so easy in the late 1990s: a budding entrepreneur bought a catchy domain name, set up a website and hit the search engines. A business plan was nice but not essential because with a medium so new, rules were broken as they were made.
But, when dot-com became dot-bomb, running an Internet-based business became a real challenge.
While Internet giants such as eBay and Amazon have clearly survived the Internet shakeout, what about small local businesses that use the Web solely to deliver their product or services?
Here's a look at how several have fared. Though they have little in common beyond the Internet, these businesses all found an underserved or unserved niche and exploited it.
Fay Cullen's online business -- www.faycullen.com -- is the culmination of 20 years selling precious jewelry. Her story reads like a romance novel: Young British stall holder at London's Portobello Road market falls in love with an American customer who introduces her to the world of fine jewels and whisks her off to California. They marry and she develops a business dealing in antique jewelry. Then divorce and a move to Miami follow. Cullen opens a jewelry box store while traveling constantly, buying and selling jewelry to the trade.
Five years ago the Bay Harbor Islands resident discovered the Internet and created her first website to sell jewelry boxes. But as a single parent, she wanted to be home more and decided to focus solely on selling jewelry online. ''It took me about three years to get my main site going, and now we have about 3,000 unique users a day,'' said Cullen.
Now she has carved out a cyber niche selling specialty, antique and estate pieces with the focus on diamond engagement rings priced from $200 to $20,000.
Last year, her online sales included 20 engagement rings for more than $10,000 apiece. Sales in 2004 are expected to exceed $3 million.
She credits her sales success to an attractive and artistic website that's easy to access and navigate but costs more than $150,000 a year for search engine placement and advertising.
''There's no point in having exquisite stock if no one gets to see it,'' said Cullen whose high monthly overheads cover a staff of nine including a professional photographer, a hand model and two writers. ''We probably don't make as much as other companies, but the staff are the backbone of my business and receive full benefits such as health insurance; we all work together as family,'' Cullen said.
Cullen includes a gift card, handmade by her mother and friends, with each purchase and that personal touch helps distinguish her from the inherent anonymity of the Internet. ''I want customers to know me as a nice person to do business with so the site doesn't even have a shopping cart,'' she said.
She also keeps in touch with customers through e-mail and even phone calls. ''Good vibes are important. I believe in creating positive energy even in cyberspace,'' she said.
In the past four years North Miami resident Melanie Cohen has produced www.Socialmiami.com, a compendium of information on some 800 arts, cultural and charitable events in the community. The main website is updated weekly and e-mailed free of charge to about 18,000 opt-in subscribers, while a newsletter called Arts About Town, goes out monthly. ''We attract a niche group of upscale consumers who attend the events described,'' said Cohen. She also provides a free home page, event listings and an interactive bulletin board for nonprofits.
Cohen's revenue comes from several sources that tap into organizations' desire for post-event publicity. SocialEyes includes a fee-based e-mail broadcast with photos and names of important guests and the Online Event Gallery displays pictures taken by Socialmiami's photographers, plus a full-screen advertisement. Guests can view the pictures online and order prints if they wish.
Organizations, businesses and professionals such as financial planners, pay a fee for customized e-mail announcements and invitations that are e-mailed to subscribers.
Sponsorships, meanwhile, bring in a good percentage of the site's revenue with memberships at different levels.
''We are continually trying to identify viable revenue streams,'' said Cohen. ''Using our equipment, we've supplied IDs and event credentials for businesses and produced hotel keys with advertising on one side.'' The company owns domain names for 36 cities and is putting www.socialbroward.com online shortly.
Brad Helicher, of The CSF Group, helped establish www.breakintosales.com last March. The site offers consulting services and specially designed seminars, both live and virtual, targeted to college seniors and young professionals who want to get major league sales jobs in fields such as pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, software and food and wine.
''We saw that there was no product or service that specifically prepares candidates for the unique and challenging sales interviewing process,'' said Helicher, ``so we created a comprehensive niche product.''
Helicher says on a national level, employers will seek to fill approximately 100,000 open sales positions this year, and there are an estimated 125,000 recent graduates and 250,000 young professionals interested in pursuing a career in sales. ''Through the Web we can aggressively target 10 percent of these 375,000 sales candidates, giving us approximately 38,000 potential customers,'' he says.
One of those was Ken Danielson, a graduate with a bachelor's degree in computer science, who found a very tight job market, especially in the technology sector. A friend referred the West Davie resident to breakintosales.com and after taking the course, he landed a position in software sales with a Broward County company.
Helicher says startup costs for the Web-based business approach $20,000, mainly for Webdesign and marketing. ''We project first year revenues to be only $70,000, but we intend to triple revenues by our third fiscal year,'' he said.