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Weaving a home on the Web

Small businesses look to the Internet for additional exposure, sales

By DAVE GUSSOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 21, 1998


Curt Rafferty used to spend $300 a month on direct mail to advertise his Indian Rocks Beach hotel. He cut it back to $20 a month after setting up a Web site for his business.

"It's fantastic as far as a marketing tool," said Rafferty, owner of the Sea Haven Resort (http://www.seahaven.com).

Rafferty already has seen results since going online in April: a half-dozen rentals.

"For the price I pay per month, it is far cheaper than any advertisement I can place, and it gives the consumer far more information than any brochure I can send out," Rafferty said.

Rafferty is one of many small businesses setting up shop on the Web, some of whom contacted the Times during August's Your Site Here series and shared their experiences.

The approach, costs and challenges differed for each. Rafferty designed his own site, as did Rich Olsen, a partner in R&S Enterprises (http://www.rsenterprises.com) in Hudson. Patty Callaghan, the owner of Brigit Books (http://www.brigitbooks.com) in St. Petersburg, concedes she is more comfortable in a traditional bookstore than dealing with technology, so she had help.

All three, like many other Tampa Bay area businesses, are looking for their place in the growing world of electronic commerce.

Rafferty started out with a plan for a four-page site, got up to 80 pages and ended up with 52. He estimates the site took 100 hours to produce. Then again, he had time on his hands because a knee injury limited his mobility for months. He spent about $200 developing the site, including software and film developing, and about $50 a month for his Internet service provider to post the site.

"The main thing is the front (page)," Rafferty said. "You have to have a great front page for people to keep clicking on it."

It is important to have the design planned, he said, though the copy came to him as he went. He used a lot of photos because "people want to see before they book" a resort.

If he had to do it over or advise others, Rafferty said he would have done more research before buying software. Reading the back of boxes didn't help him understand which features might have enhanced what he was doing.

Olsen's company, R&S, is a 2-year-old distributor of gift products that takes orders by phone and mail order. It went online in July. "(We) didn't want to be left behind, I suppose," he said.

Olsen spent about 10 hours building his site. He did it himself "for better control over the changes we need to make."

He described the process as "rather easy," and said the company spends only about $10 a month to maintain the site. But it is not cost that concerns him.

"The whole cost was very reasonable," Olsen said, "although I will admit trying to do a business and be a Web master takes a lot of time . . . If it proves productive and profitable, we may turn it over to a person who can do that for us."

So far, he says he has made only one sale through the Web site ("that's pretty good"), and he is working with his Web host to keep his site showing up on search engines.

Selling books online has become one of the more visible signs of e-commerce, with giants like Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble getting most of the attention.

"A lot of bookstores are feeling the pressure, with the transition from bookstore buying to Internet buying," Callaghan at Brigit Books said. "I'm hoping my customers will buy books from me on the Internet. I want to make sure I do my part in keeping independent booksellers around."

Callaghan hasn't spent a lot upfront, although she did invest more than $3,000 for an electronic data base for people to look up selections.

Sheree Graves, president of Conundrum Communications (http://www.consultnews.com) in St. Petersburg, set up the site in return for a share of the revenue. Graves said costs have been around $7,000, and acknowledges it is an unusual business arrangement.

"Most of the other sites we're building, we quote on a project basis," she said. "We don't do revenue sharing. (But) it's a model I'm willing to take a look at. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. As you know, the Internet is very speculative."

Callaghan is selling ads and sponsorships, but Graves said she does not expect to see a lot of revenue from the site.

"It's a risk, but it's worth it," said Callaghan, who has run Brigit Books for nine years.

So far, she has taken 25 to 30 orders over the Web, for both new and used books. But, she says, she hasn't started advertising the site and people don't necessarily know it is there.

How will all these fledging Web ventures turn out? Olsen and Callaghan say the verdict on their efforts is still out.

"I think it's out for most people," Callaghan said. "Even Amazon.com is losing money . . . that won't always be the case, of course."

Rafferty tempers his assessment with comments like "There's a lot I could have done with it" or "I could do a lot better."

But he is clearly pleased with the product.

"I wish I could have done it eight years ago," Rafferty said. "I'm definitely sold on advertising my business (on the Web). It helps tremendously. With retail, I think it would be fantastic."

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