When The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. wanted to tout the advantages of its new Mud Runner Run-Flat tire for all-terrain vehicles, a courageous crew at Akron-based Hitchcock Fleming & Associates Inc. went more than the extra mile to produce a convincing promotional video and brochure for the product.
In fact, the team went all the way to the Everglades, where Hitchcock creative director Bob Clancy, account manager Amy Freed Humbert and art director Tony Carter found themselves up to their necks in alligators.
“Amidst hundreds of gators, we demonstrated how the Mud Runner Run-Flat gets you through the muck, even with a few holes created by razor sharp jaws,” Clancy exclaims.
The point of the promo, says Clancy, is that jagged obstacles in the off-the-beaten path of a speeding all-terrain vehicle can bring a thrilling ride to a disappointing and even dangerous halt.
The good news, says Goodyear’s specialty product manager Ed McMahon, is that the Run-Flat technology enables ATV drivers to keep on trekking, despite what may run under the wheels.
“You can have a gaping hole two inches in diameter, and continue to run on it for up to 50 miles at 25 miles an hour,” McMahon says.
“And you can go even farther if you go slower,” says Clancy.
But it’s doubtful that an ATV operator would want to slow down when stranded in the middle of nowhere especially if nowhere is a festering quagmire that happens to be home to slithering, 800-pound swamp things with razor-sharp teeth.
There’s comfort in the fact, says Clancy, that the brawny Mud Runner has a computer-enhanced tread design that keeps it from clogging, and the slotted lugs have a “biting edge” to prevent the wheel from becoming bogged down.
To corroborate the claim in the most persuasive manner possible, Clancy gathered a group of professionals from Akron and beyond and traveled all the way to Gatorland, the “Alligator Capital of the World,” in Orlando, Fla.
Included in the entourage were Akron photographers Jim Martin, Scott Earhart and Ray Langston of Studio Martone Inc., and commercial production photographer and director George Remington of Cleveland-based Remington Productions Inc.
Along with the Hitchcock team, the crew pulled on their khaki pants and pith helmets and partnered with other Florida and California-based production professionals to capture the action.
McMahon says that since ATVs are intended for fun and excitement, he wanted to avoid traditional advertising slants in which a vehicle glides along a paved road, spiraling autumn leaves in its path. What Hitchcock came up with, he says, was perfect for the product.
“It was a natural because of the popularity of shows in which the Australian adventurer is always out hunting crocodiles and reptiles,” says Clancy.
Through a California casting firm, Humbert hired young Australian actor Eric Finney to play just such a part for Goodyear’s video. Then she made arrangements for the use of an ATV manufactured by Minnesota-based Polaris Industries and operated by Polaris stunt driver Ritch Ragle.
Pooling their talents in a mud swamp swimming with prowling razorbacks, coiled rattlesnakes and stinging insects, the Hitchcock team, the Akron photography and film crew, the stunt driver and the actor succeeded in producing a promo that has pure bite.
The objective, of course, was to show that Goodyear’s tire is completely at home in the mud, and credibly illustrate its remarkable capabilities to savvy sports enthusiasts, hunters, farmers and other ATV users.
Humbert says the sheer essence of the product itself was enough to make that impression there was no need for special effects.
Even Clancy, who’d written the script for the actor and narrator, was amazed.
“I’m an ad man I’ve heard all the claims and I thought I’d seen it all,” says Clancy. “But the stunt driver drove so far out into the swamp that I thought the ATV was going to sink into the water and disappear. He was up to his waist in water, mud and muck, and this tire just churned through everything it never once got stuck.”
Ant it wasn’t just the Mud Runner’s marsh muscle that was impressive, says Humbert. She was surprised when the tire resisted the power-locked jaws of a hungry alligator. Lured by horsemeat placed in the tread grooves, the 20-foot amphibian tried to bite into the tire.
Humbert relates that Gatorland officials are accustomed to working with production crews, and the trained alligator handlers have accommodated about as many requests as an alligator has teeth.
“It’s the same location where the James Bond sequence was filmed, where Pierce Brosnan walks across the backs of alligators,” says Clancy. “Any film that has gators in it was probably filmed at Gatorland.”
Humbert says that when she initially viewed capabilities videos provided by Gatorland’s public relations department, she was mesmerized by the daring and expertise of head trainer Tim Williams. Referred to as the attraction’s “Dean of Gator Wrestling,” Williams is a 25-year veteran of swamp creature exploits.
“Once we got there, he instilled such confidence in us and made us feel so comfortable that within an hour, we were standing literally up to our necks in alligators and not feeling the danger that really is there,” she says.
Clancy confirms that after three days in the swamps, hundreds of pounds of horsemeat and some close calls with prehistoric pea-brains, the Hitchcock crew brought back some dramatic advertising, which they’ve since dubbed, “Swamp Thang.”
The group also came home with a few stories to tell their friends and Kodachrome memories for the office bulletin board such as the photograph of Humbert straddling one of the ferocious beasts.
“As long as you have a big bucket of horsemeat near you and you’re throwing it in their mouth, they seem to obey pretty well,” Clancy laughs.
Humbert says that about 3,500 dubs of the video were made available for ATV and tire dealers, and the promo debuted at Goodyear’s annual dealer conference in January at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Airing continuously in a large screening area at the convention, the video drew the attention of 4,200 Goodyear, Kelly-Springfield and Dunlop dealers who attended.
The response to the four-minute action spot and the four-page color brochure was as expected, says McMahon: Viewers agreed that Goodyear’s Mud Runner Run-Flat is “the meanest, nastiest thing to crawl out of the swamp.”
“We’ve won awards for these things in the past, but I think this is the best one we’ve done so far,” says Clancy. “But you can only be creative to the point where your client allows you to be creative. Ed and his team at Goodyear did a terrific job in that sense.”
How to reach: Hitchcock Fleming & Associates Inc., (330) 376-2111
Buckingham, Doolittle & Burroughs, Akron, has elected four new shareholders: Kevin A. Denti, Dirk E. Riemenschneider, John P. Slagter and Terry W. Vincent.
Bruce H. Fahey has joined the Akron law firm of Kastner Westman & Wilkins.
Michael E. Markowski has become a partner in the Akron office of Bruner-Cox, an accounting firm with offices in Canton and Akron.
Anthony Manna is leaving the Akron law firm of Amer Cunningham Brennan to start a new law firm with partner David Brennan. The firm will specialize in business transactions, and will be located at the former Akron Art Museum building on East Market Street.
Mobility Works of Akron has hired Allen Grota as production manager.
CBIZ/Spector & Saulino, Akron, has hired AnaLuisa Shockey as a CPA in its Mergers & Acquisitions Group and has named Lester S. Sherman as new managing principal.
H.M. Life Opportunity Services, an Akron-based transitional housing organization that assists homeless, single-parent families, has added Francis Dick-Campbell as development director and Nancy Likens as caseworker.
Michael J. Lorenzo is the new owner of Akron Valve & Fitting Co.
Mitchell A. McCoy has been appointed president of McCoy Associates, an Akron-based engineering and consulting services firm.
Geri M. Cistone has been appointed senior sales executive at The Crawford Co., Akron.
Jack Hayes, president of Connecting Touch Therapy & Wellness Center Inc. in Cuyahoga Falls, was awarded the Sertoma Service to Mankind for his commitment to community involvement.
Steven G. Seigfrid has been named residential mortgage representative for Chippewa Valley Bank in Rittman.
RCS Management Group, an integrated database marketing and consulting services firm in Cuyahoga Falls, has hired Bryan M. Grimaldi as an account executive.
Akron General Health System has named William C. Epling president of HomeTown Health Network.
Cambridge Home Health Care has promoted Pam Bell to senior care specialist.
Bob McCann of Moore Stephens Apple, Akron, earned the Accredited in Business Valuation designation.
Baerlocher GmbH has named Nirmal S. Jain president and CEO of Baerlocher USA in Dover.
Hasenstab & McCarthy Architects Inc. has added three registered architects: Zoltan M. Balogh, Mark A. Dlekmann and Margaret M. Zezulewicz.
Jim Lenahan has been appointed executive director of the Society of the Blind, Akron Center.
Brockman, Coats, Gedelian & Co., an Akron CPA firm, has hired the following: Emily Shacklett as supervisor; Sean Buck as network engineer and programmer; Sarah Lautzenheiser as senior software engineer; Wendy DAngelo and Dana Howell as staff assistants; April Martin as administrative assistant; and Sarah Popa as receptionist.
Janet Moritz of Walker & Jocke, Medina, is president of the Ohio Association for Legal Professionals.
InfoCision Management Corp., Akron, has promoted Jerry Harris to the position of director of creative services.
Matthew W. Oby has joined the Akron law firm Oldham & Dowling.
In 1998, Robert Miller decided it was time he registered the name of his familys then 4-year-old store with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The manager of Thinker Toys, an educational toy store located in Fairlawns West Market Plaza, envisioned at one point starting a mail-order Web site, and he knew the move would take the store name into areas far beyond its sole west Akron location areas where other entrepreneurs might adopt the catchy moniker as their own.
As it turned out, someone already had.
Local intellectual property attorney Roger Emerson discovered the proprietors of a California toy store had beat his client to the punch by submitting an application to register the same name a mere two months earlier. Common law, he explained to Miller, entitled the family to use the name in the Akron area and, if it was found they had used it on their Web site before the California counterpart, in the rest of the country as well.
Trademark rights are based on who used the trademark first and, secondly, in which geographic location the trademark was used, Emerson says.
Theres even a 5-year period between the time a registration is issued and the time its deemed incontestable, when anyone believing they have a claim to the name in question can petition to have the registration canceled.
In the end, the family contented itself with retaining the rights to the Thinker Toys name in the Akron area alone.
We just decided it was easiest to leave it at that just because of the expense, Miller, now 25, says. Roger was very straightforward about it, that this was not going to be an inexpensive [thing] for us to do.
The cost of going to court, he adds, could well have put the toy store out of business.
The problem is a growing one, thanks in part to the Internet explosion. Businesses with identical or similar names that once operated within different geographic areas, blissfully unaware of one another because of the miles that separated them, are now bumping into each other in cyberspace.
Once you hang your page up on the World Wide Web, you no longer have little strip mall jurisdictions, says John Garred, an intellectual property and patent lawyer at Arter & Hadden in Cleveland. You have broadcast that trademark to virtually everybody in the world.
Problem can often be avoided by researching and registering a trade name (the name by which a business is known), trademark (a word, symbol or slogan identifying a good or service), and/or domain name (commonly known as a Web site address) with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and securing rights to it, preferably before going into business.
Most people think of a name they like for their store or for their product, and they just adopt it, Emerson says. They dont do any checking at all to see if its available.
Business owners can do the work themselves by logging onto the U.S. Patent and Trademark Offices Web site at www.uspto.gov, where visitors can access the offices database to see if the trade name, trademark or domain name in which theyre interested is available. It also allows them to fill out an application to register it online. (Registration packets can also be obtained by calling the Trademark Assistance Center at (703) 308-9200.)
Garred suggests amateur sleuths also check local trade directories, telephone books, Yellow Pages, and other resources to make sure the name theyre considering isnt already being used by someone who hasnt registered it.
According to Jessie Marshall, an attorney adviser in the Arlington, Va., office of the U.S. commissioner for trademarks, the federal government charges $325 to file an application. It takes four to five months for an examining attorney to review the application.
Emerson does the job for $850 $250 to do the research and prepare an availability opinion and $600 to prepare and file an application a price he regards as standard in the area. He allows that most people can conduct an adequate search of the trademark and patent offices Web site database on their own; in fact, he highly recommends doing a self-search to those who cannot afford a professionals services.
However, he points out that most people do not have access to all the databases, some of which require a membership or fee, that he and other attorneys use. And Marshall says private search firms peruse state records, corporate filings, any kind of commercial listing they can.
Emerson believes many people do not have the knowledge and experience to interpret their results for example, whether the name chosen for a new business or product is too similar to an already-registered counterpart for legal comfort.
Thats usually where the attorney is providing the value, he says.
He refuses to interpret information submitted by clients, mainly because he fears it is incomplete.
For those who can only afford to register one item, Garred suggests registering the name of the main product or service in block letters with a thorough description of basic goods and services. He explains that logos and slogans come and go and, in many cases, consumers are infinitely more familiar with the name of a product or service than that of its manufacturer or provider.
Also at the top of the to-register list is the domain name, along with any common misspellings. It is far more expensive to obtain a domain name already registered by someone else, he points out, than simply registering it first. And the sooner a business starts a Web site with that domain name, the better.
Business owners with cash to spare may want to consider registering what Garred refers to as pejorative alternates to the domain name. Common examples include yourdomainnamesucks.com and yourdomainnameblows.com.
Its not unusual for someone to post a whole Web page as to why your products so horrible, he says. It happens all the time.
Marshall stresses that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office does not dispense legal advice or wield enforcement powers. It is up to the owner of the registration to police and take action against anyone who uses his/her property. But she calls the federal registration a huge piece of ammunition in the fight to defend ones right to a name or mark.
A cease-and-desist letter to a later user saying, I have a federal registration for this mark, so back off, means a lot more than, I used it before you, she says.
How to reach: Thinker Toys, (330) 665-3860; Roger Emerson, (330) 535-9999
When Jamie Cain founded her Akron computer firm in 1995, she wanted to convey her companys mission in her business name. So she went to great lengths to secure the identity that Internet companies are now clamoring to call their own.
If youve driven near the intersection of Arlington Road and I-77, youve likely seen her buildings 50-foot-high, 10 feet by 16 feet sign touting the company name: Dot.Com Technologies Inc.
Were a computer consulting company that does all the really complicated stuff in back-end Internet development, so I picked out Dot.Com Technologies and acquired first-use rights on April 4, 1995. But today, its an ongoing battle with other companies trying to say theyre Dot.Com, she says, explaining that although the trademark remains unassigned, her attorney assures her that its her baby, due to her first-rights claim.
Unfortunately, Cain was too late to seize the same moniker for her Web site. So she settled for DTIServices.com. On the up side, she says the business name has boosted the value of her company.
When a patient recently attempted to schedule minor surgery recommended by her doctor, the appointment clerk expressed surprise that the procedure was being scheduled before the insurance company approved payment. The patient was, in turn, amazed that anyone would wait to see what insurance would pay or even care if it did.
Hugh McLaughlin, D.O., of Cuyahoga Falls Family Practice, explains that managed care insurance has changed everything.
Its a whole different scene than five years ago. Today, many patients get so frustrated because their insurance wont pay for certain procedures, and if its not covered, theyll go without the procedure even though they know their medical condition will worsen.
But theres a twist, says McLaughlin.
Often, these are the same patients who will argue about a $10 co-pay and show up in my office three months later with a $6,000 breast implant paid for out of pocket!
Personal calls on company time?
Why would a business owner enlist the help of a private investigator?
Besides rounding up the usual suspects in cases such as embezzlement and missing inventory, Design Safety Investigations Inc. in Fairlawn gets some strange calls from CEOs. Company president Joe Forgach and his partner Andy Kasarda recently closed a case that involved some very personal calls on company time.
Alarmed at outrageous charges on his firms monthly telephone bills, a CEO asked Forgach to solve the mystery.
It sounded like someone was going to porno sites on the Internet and billing it through the Internet Service Provider. Turned out, an employee was disconnecting the computer from its dedicated service line and putting a phone in its place to make calls to a porno establishment, Forgach reveals.
Rather than providing a credit card number to pay the 900 number fees, the employee had the charges reversed.
When Demetra and Larry Smith asked Larrys parents for a loan in 1977 to buy what was then Mikes Main Entrance, they saw it as a long-term opportunity to make a living together.
Today, 23 years later, Larrys Main Entrance is a West Market Street landmark known for its handmade burgers and 3 a.m. steak and eggs breakfasts. Owner Demetra Smith spoke to SBN about longevity in an industry known as much for overnight successes as for sudden bankruptcies.
What is your key to longevity?
Stubbornness. You have to get up every day and you have to go in and do whatever has to be done. You cant just say one day you dont feel like it or you cant say, This is going to be a vacation day. Its not like working for somebody else you dont have vacation unless you plan around yourself.
All these are keys to longevity. Also, flexibility. Since Larry and I do not have children, weve had more time to spend in the business. I was able to keep the business a priority, and I think women going into business need to consider this. If you have a strong enough support system, you can cover for those things. A business like this requires a lot of hours.
Both you and Larry have masters degrees in the fine arts. How much did you know about the restaurant business when you opened Larrys?
I grew up in the restaurant business, so I had a pretty large background. Larry had some business experience. I think it [an arts background] helped us in the decor of our restaurant, and I think the more education you have, its going to help no matter what you go into or what field.
When I was a child, I used to help my parents in the restaurant, cleaning, making drinks and taking money. This is a piece of cake compared to that their place was much bigger.
Is there any advice you remember getting that has helped you run Larrys?
No. I feel I got a lot a bad advice, and luckily never listened to it. People always want to be negative. Everyone can give advice and tell you what they think your restaurant should be, but you have to do what you want.
Basically thats what we did, but we did it very slowly. We were young starting out in this and I think we were open to a lot of criticism. We took it slowly so that we could reach our vision of what we wanted this to be and even at that, its always changing.
What advice would you give someone today who wanted to open a restaurant?
They should have a clear vision of what they want it to be. They do have to search for their own market niche, which is probably deciding who their market is going to be and go after it.
While you are doing all this, you need to have lots of energy and determination.
How do you keep your customers coming back?
I think people keep coming back here because they feel good about their experience. This is not just about being a restaurant serving food and serving drinks but its also an experience for people because its a little more personal, even if Im not here.
I have people here who customers can relate to. A lot of people will come back because they like their server or they like their bartender. Also, the food is consistently good.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Im sure Ill still be here. I definitely will not be retired, living on an island. Ill always be working once its in your blood, you dont stop.
How to reach: Larrys Main Entrance, (330) 864-8162
As an author, management consultant and former police officer, local businessman Timothy Dimoff has tried his hand at many professions. This month, Dimoff, with partner John Vitullo, unveils his most recent venture Omega Labs in Mogadore.
The lab is the only drug testing facility in the region that can detect illegal drugs in hair. (The other three hair testing laboratories in the U.S. are located in the West.)
Dimoff and Vitullo who owned a drug testing lab in Youngstown for 20 years have invested $2 million so far in the 20,000-square-foot facility and the technology, which includes $200,000 drug confirmation computers. The lab has the capacity to test 750 samples a day.
The two hired lab director Tom Donahue, who has worked in other hair testing labs, and two forensic chemists to run the lab.
They hope to attract a national clientele base eventually, although selling the labs services has not been a priority yet, says Dimoff, who bypassed the venture capital route to avoid the pressure of fast returns.
We didnt want to be under the gun, he says.
With a $700 million and growing national market for drug testing services, he may not have to look too hard for customers.
The main benefit of hair drug testing (over urine testing) is the history that the results show. Every half-inch of a strand of hair carries a 30-day history, says Dimoff, who worked the narcotics beat as a police officer. The standard test, on 1 1/2 inches of hair, will screen for cocaine, marijuana, opiates, methamphetamine and phencyclidine (PHP). Dimoff adds that any positive result is tested again, then confirmed.
Were bringing technology into the area thats not existent here, Dimoff says. The growth in the area is going to be contingent upon new technology.
But its not just the cutting-edge technology that makes Omega unique. Dimoff has tied the lab into an umbrella of business services he calls the Workplace Solutions Group. He has moved his consultancy practice, SACS Consulting & Investigative Services Inc., under that umbrella, and has so far attracted two other workplace safety services firms.
All of a sudden other entities wanted to be a part of us, so we expanded the focus, Dimoff says.
Each company, including SACS, will be moving within the next few months to the Mogadore facility which houses Omega Labs.
When asked if he has seen a concept like this succeed elsewhere, Dimoff assures that it is one-of-a-kind.
We predict that others will follow, but theres always an edge for the person who does it first, he says.
How to reach: Omega Labs, (330) 628-5748; SACS Consulting & Investigative Services Inc., (330) 633-9551
Dot-coms are predicted to be the well of wealth for the new millennium. A booming economy, a potent supply of venture capital and increasing customer reliance on the Internet are some of the reasons companies are clamoring to launch electronic-commerce sites.
Whether used as an instrument of specialization, a tool for brand-building or as the ladder to an IPO, businesses are lining up to compete at the breakneck pace of the dot-com world.
While many firms are starting up to operate as dot-coms, many well-established companies have integrated e-commerce strategy to enhance their overall corporate agenda. Despite their rationale for taking advantage of all things Web-related, these firms have something in common: Suited in technology, they’re revving their engines at the dot-com start-up gate, eager to speed their Internet identities.
And whether the purpose is to secure a long-term future or go for short-term glory and cash in quickly, they all share the hope that their presence on the information highway may lead them to a pot of gold.
E-Debt Exchange Inc. in Fairlawn is an example of a company established as an e-commerce operator. After almost six months of due diligence, Morton Stone, chairman, and Michael Zoldan, president and CEO, co-founded the firm in August 1999. This March, they debuted E-Debt.com as a long-overdue development in the debt-trading industry.
Steven Lefkowitz, chief operating officer, explains that E-Debt Exchange Inc. is not a buyer or seller of debt; rather, it’s an intermediary.
“E-Debt.com is a business-to-business site that enables financial institutions, investors and collection agencies to buy and sell distressed debt through one centralized location, in real time,” he says.
The site uses advanced search engines, proprietary data-mining tools and transactional software so buyers can instantly find debt portfolios that match their criteria and E-Debt’s collection process scrutinizes and culls from current data to eliminate debt that buyers avoid.
Lefkowitz says E-Debt systematizes the process with impartial, fair price comparisons, due-diligence mechanisms and security-ensured transmissions. Sellers of debt can sell portfolios at price, at auction or through private online negotiations. And since transactions which typically take a month or more using traditional methods are completed within four to six days, users get reduced search costs, competitive pricing and accurate information.
E-debt.com is the first site of its kind, says Lefkowitz, and destined to be a winner because of its capabilities.
“What we truly want it to be is the online marketplace for distressed debt, and we’re going to provide value add-ons to streamline the process,” says Lefkowitz.
Initially backed by private placement funds and their own money, the partners have ambitious plans for global growth. In early March they secured $1.25 million in first-round financing from investment bankers at Cleveland-based Brown Gibbons Lang & Co.
“This initial funding allows us to establish the E-Debt brand as the marketplace buyers and sellers of debt should use to flow their transactions through. We’re trying to mass market our message to educate potential users about the benefits of E-Debt.com,” says Lefkowitz. “But we’re also looking for strategic investors willing to put money behind this, to enhance the site and to support our sales team.”
Lefkowitz laughs at the prospect of selling out.
“Everybody thinks the reason people do this is to get rich,” he says. “But we’ve put together a management team that truly believes in this business and we have no plans to go public. Our agenda is about growing our company and we don’t have an exit strategy.”
But if a public offering eventually becomes an option, Lefkowitz says, “Obviously, we’re not stupid that’s a road we’ll take if it makes sense to us for a lot of reasons. But for now, we’re in it for the long term.”
Integrating e-business strategy wasn’t part of the initial plan for Akron-based 4TechWork.com. Behind the e-com identity is an established business that completely rebranded itself as a dot-com after five years of operating under another name.
Eric Schlueter, Steve Kokitka and Mike Seed established the firm in January 1995 as Enterprise Alliance Consulting, to pair corporate clients with information technology consultants for short- and long-term projects.
“Our initial plans were to develop a full-service IT consulting company to service Fortune 500 companies in Northeast Ohio. We planned to grow in that way, addressing hot spots in the market, such as staff augmentation consulting, enterprise resource planning and data warehousing,” says Seed, general manager.
Then, last October, the company regrouped as a dot-com, after a year of developing its 4TechWork.com site.
“We wanted to use the Internet to present the experience of our consultants in a convenient fashion for hiring managers, and to raise the credibility of our business as a whole,” Seed says.
In turn, the firm simplified the staffing process with a comprehensive, searchable Web-based database. The dot-com has also become the primary growth engine for the company, says Seed.
“We’re in an aggressive brand-marketing campaign to drive potential clients to our site where they can just point, click and hire.”
Eric Schlueter, e-commerce practice manager, explains that clients keystroke the skills needed for the job, the project’s timeframe and pay rates. A list is generated that specifies certified professionals capable of doing the job within the client’s preferred parameters.
Steve Kokitka, recruiting vice president, says that since 4TechWork has already evaluated the applicant’s skills, verified credentials, performed background checks and conducted standardized testing, clients can view the data and read appraisals of other clients who’ve employed them. Photographs are included and plans are underway to add 30-second audio/video clips. These value-added offerings differentiate the 4TechWork.com from other staffing sites, he says.
“It’s an easy, no-pressure process, and once a client makes a selection, 4TechWork.com will arrange in-person interviews,” says Seed. “We’re also using the site to recruit consultants. They can apply for work over the Internet by describing themselves, their skills and taking the tests.”
In February, 4TechWork merged with Callos Technical Partners, part of The Callos Companies a 35-year old personnel recruitment and consultant firm. As equity partners, Callos principals John Callos and Tom Walsh serve on 4TechWork’s board of directors, but as minority investors, are not active in day-do-day operations.
Seed affirms that the dot-com is not a prelude to an IPO; rather, it was conceived to better assist IT and human resource managers and to enhance the firm’s core specialty. Primarily, funding has been generated by company cash flow. But the partners may consider seeking venture capital to expand the endeavor.
“We restrict our business to Northeast Ohio, but if we can prove the success of our dot-com’s concept, and as we start to get more brand equity, we’d like to roll it out to other geographies. At that point, we would look for some type of financing, whether with partners, venture capital, or even an IPO.”
If an IPO becomes a reality, the dot-com identity couldn’t hurt, he says.
“The dot-com certainly creates a lot of excitement in a company name, but even beyond the hype, if we can use the leverage of the Web to drive business, we can grow our company without the associated overhead.”
Even some established high-tech firms are finding that, despite systems integration expertise, there are inherent hurdles in launching a dot-com and an e-com identity doesn’t always lead to an instant payoff.
Joseph Chou established his first endeavor, Pony Computer Inc., back in 1988 at age 30 but it was only last year that he attempted to blast off a dot-com as a separate entity from his Streetsboro systems integration firm.
Incorporated in March 1999 as AtHowTo.com, the name was changed to PlanetKnowHow.com early this year. The site, still in a developmental stage, is on the Net in beta format.
The site’s mission is to provide answers to information-hungry consumers on myriad subjects. Each answer, which will be presented in a step-by-step “how-to” format, will link users to vendors who sell products or services related to the topic. PlanetKnowHow plans to sell Web site design and maintenance services to those vendors, as well.
“The core business is to provide simple Web strategy solutions for small- to medium-size businesses that have the potential for rapid growth, using the Internet to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace,” Chou says.
But like many dot-coms, he admits, the scope is evolving as the market rapidly changes.
Matthew Reineke, chief operating officer, says that while Chou intended to use in-house capabilities to create the technology, programming and integration to implement his dot-com, “that tactic has proven to be too slow and too costly.”
While funding has come primarily from the dot-com’s founders and private individuals, Chou discloses plans to take PlanetKnowHow public before year-end, to speed international growth. To that end, Reineke confides that the firm is trying to align with partners to acquire enough funding.
“We have found that the easiest way to overcome the biggest challenges is to make partnerships and alliances with other companies and benefit from their experiences, while sharing our unique capabilities for their benefit in return,” he says.
Reineke says that the buzz behind the dot-com trend is part of the reason there’s a wealth of investment capital just waiting to back an Internet company, particularly those that provide a service. With that in mind, PlanetKnowHow.com is positioning itself for an IPO payoff.
“The Internet itself facilitates the publicity by making information so easily available on any company that an investor may be interested in,” says Reineke. “When investors hear of a good idea, they can immediately check it out by navigating the company’s Web site and seeing the potential for future growth. And that gets people excited.”
Similar to Silicon Valley, many of Ohio’s high-tech execs have huddled in the Twinsburg area. That’s where Edward Tromczynski, 37, and Bruce Harris, 52, are capitalizing on their dot-com concept that naysayers predicted would never make it.
What sprang as an idea to take their industry to the high-tech level has positioned PlanSoft Corp. as the leading Internet-based business-to-business solution provider in the $100 billion meeting and convention industry.
Their point-and-click solutions is made up of two elements: the Ajenis product suite, a software program the partners developed in 1992 that enables event planners to arrange meetings electronically;
and their Web-based PlanSoft Network, found at www.plansoft.com. Users can link to venues to view photos, images and capability specifications of selected national and international meeting facilities.
They can arrange every detail, from meeting site and supplier selection to housing, registration and other services, to bidding, contracting, and purchasing. Instant event reports enable planners to track up-to-the-minute registration and other details.
Tromczynski, PlanSoft’s president, says that while the site is free to planners, PlanSoft profits from property and supplier listings, banner ads and commissions earned from hotels and facilities booked.
Harris, as chairman, confides that at first, industry critics said the concept was too futuristic to make it to the finish line.
“Everyone involved realized that this connectivity and communication would take place electronically on the Internet via what is now referred to as a “dot-com” solution,” he says.
The partners brought key buyers and sellers to the table and made believers and supporters of them.
“Understanding the magnitude of unifying a $100 million vertical market, we recognized early on that it would require more than our individual efforts. So we secured equity ownership by the two largest groups of industry buyers Meeting Professionals International and the American Society of Association Executives and sellers specifically, Hyatt Hotels, Marriott International, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, as equity owners,” Tromczynski says.
Starting with an initial investment of $1 million, then a few million more in private commitments, the partners have secured more than $42 million in funding through strategic and venture capital investors, bringing the total investment to $46 million. An IPO is inevitable, says Tromczynski .
“Our plans and all subsequent investment activity are aimed toward considerable growth of the company, and we consider an IPO as a potential branding and growth financing event. But we haven’t yet established a definitive timeline,” he says.
When that time comes, PlanSoft’s dot-com moniker will be invaluable to the IPO, he says.
“We view an initial public offering as a branding event, and as we all know, dot-com companies and solutions providers are receiving high evaluations.”
While companies used to wait to publicize IPOs until the eve of going public, times have changed, says Tromczynski.
“Beyond idea, opportunity and management team, companies leveraging the Internet and considering the public market will need to secure and announce strong, relative partnerships, show multiple secure recurring revenue streams, identify existing revenue traction.”
While it may look as if PlanSoft is already on Easy Street, Tromczynski says there are inherent challenges in launching a dot-com.
“All Internet companies face awareness, adoption and retention issues. While we have a very targeted vertical market, we face many of the same challenges of moving the marketing, selling and buying process to the Web.”
To those who believe the dot-com trend will eventually die, Tromczynski declares, “The Internet is not a choice, nor a fad. Accept it, embrace it, and invest in it as it is a significant part of your future.
“Without it, it will be a significant part of your demise.”
How to reach: E-Debt Exchange Inc., (330) 670-8446; 4TechWork.com, 877-4TECHWORK, (877) 483-2496; PlanSoft Inc., (330) 405-5555; PlanetHowTo.com, (330) 528-3898
Eight years ago, Larry Wilgus had to accept an ominous reality. If he didn’t dream up a potent marketing approach to multiply the audience of Spectacular Music Productions, the performances would cease and his dream company would die.
Spectacular Music was born in 1976 when Wilgus, a choral and orchestral conductor, assembled an orchestra and choir of 90 high school students to entertain 6,000 people at Canton’s Memorial Civic Center. Within a year, the choir numbered 200 performers, ages 17 to 75, from 30 towns in Stark, Wayne, Tuscarawas and Summit counties.
In 1985, Canton’s Palace Theatre became home to the company’s annual “Christmas Music Spectacular.” By 1991, a local dance troupe was added, and that same year, Wilgus debuted the annual “Spring Music Spectacular.” In 1997, the first annual “Romantic Strings” concert was performed with a 42-piece orchestra a show now known as “October Pops.”
“At first, we were primarily a choir concert, and I think that was one reason we weren’t getting a return audience,” says Wilgus, adding that building a loyal customer base has always been a challenge. “Today, we’re more of a Broadway musical with choreography, costume changes and elaborate sets and props.”
Despite expanded entertainment, too many seats remained empty. The problem was the marketing strategy advertising through local newspapers and radio stations, supplemented with mass mailings to previous ticket buyers wasn’t working. The pressure was on to lure semi-classical and pop music lovers who would buy tickets and keep coming back.
Desperate for direction, Wilgus met with Sherry Gesquiere, tourism manager for Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce at that time. For more than an hour, Gesquiere rattled off pages of marketing ideas while Wilgus excitedly took notes.
“When I walked out of there, I knew that conversation was going to change our whole marketing thrust, but I jumped right on Sherry’s suggestions because I thought, ‘I’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose.’”
The new strategy was to target the tourism market. Gesquiere explained that Wilgus must first develop marketing materials to promote shows scheduled for the following year.
“It was hard to decide what we were going to do a year in advance because at that time, we were only working three or four months ahead,” Wilgus explains.
Gesquiere also advised Wilgus to join the Canton Chamber and the Ohio Travel Association. She told him about the Heartland Travel Showcase, and encouraged him to secure a booth and strut his stuff. When Wilgus and his wife, Helen, who co-produces the shows, touted the company’s talent at the Heartland Showcase, they booked 20 appointments and the wheels started turning literally.
“That year, we drew about 35 motor coaches. The next year, we had 56, and 72 in 1994. That gave us an immediate audience,” Wilgus says, noting that he’d also been marketing at Cleveland and Columbus travel shows. “This year, we already have 100 motor coaches booked for the Christmas show.”
The tour groups bring about 150 motor coaches annually to the productions, keep the performances going and fuel Stark’s economy. Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce Tourism Department reports reflect that the tour groups have brought almost $2 million to Canton’s economy in six years.
But building a strong local base for performances remains a major challenge for Wilgus.
“Our problem is twofold,” he says. “Most motor coach groups won’t make reservations unless we can seat them on the main floor. And the Palace Theatre has no elevator to make balcony seating convenient and attractive. So we have almost 6,500 empty seats, primarily in the upper balcony, over the 11-performance run of our three major annual shows.”
Balcony seating, typically purchased by local patrons, represents 42 percent of the theater’s seating capacity. Local visitors bought about 4,300 tickets in 1998 and 4,700 in 1999. Still, 37 percent of the seats remain empty.
“We’ve got to fill those seats to generate funds for costumes, sets, backdrops, union orchestra and music,” says Wilgus. “We exist almost entirely on earned income through ticket sales, but those sales are just not enough to secure a healthy future.”
Reducing the number of shows isn’t a solution, Wilgus says, because the current number is necessary to attract local patrons and accommodate motor coaches. But it’s too risky to maintain the majority (80 percent) of Spectacular Music’s patrons from the motor coaches.
Worried by the precarious balance, Wilgus brainstormed ways to lessen that reliance by luring local patrons. Two years ago, an idea evolved that he says may be the key to selling more tickets.
“Focusing on the idea that people go to Blossom Music Center because they want to hear music, I met with Blossom’s general manager, David Carlucci. He recommended ways we could market a show there, and said he’d do all he could to work with us.”
Booking the Blossom event, however, was no minor task.
“Blossom brings in people from around the world, and being a local boy and not a national name, it was a challenge. The Cleveland Orchestra has top priority, and Blossom is owned by Universal Concerts, which brings in national names. Kent State also has a tie-in. So, we had to work around everyone else’s schedule to find an opening,” Wilgus says.
When the date of Saturday, June 17, was finally set in stone, Wilgus went about putting it on paper.
“Even though we’re listed on some of Blossom’s advertising and on their Web site, it was primarily up to us to market our performance. We put it on our own Web site, www.spectacularmusic.org, and we hired Crowl, Montgomery & Clark of Canton to develop a major public relations campaign,” he says.
Having settled on strategic newspaper and radio advertising, the push was on to drive readers and listeners to www.TicketMaster.com, which has exclusive rights with Blossom. Then, in April and May, Wilgus sent two direct mailings to 16,582 people, from a rented a list of 10,000 names from a local database management company, combined with his own list of prior ticket buyers.
Wilgus also signed on for two months of speaking engagements, addressing 20 audiences in organizations such as Rotary International, Lions and Kiwanis. In the process, he says, he learned something alarming.
“I discovered that most people haven’t even heard of us which is why we’re going to Blossom. This is target marketing and we’re going right to the source where we know we’ll find people who love music,” he says.
Wilgus feels confident that Spectacular Music’s Blossom debut of “Starlite Pops” will bring valuable exposure to thousands of music enthusiasts and may ultimately bring crowds to the Canton shows. He also hopes the event will inspire new singers and dancers to participate in future Spectacular Music performances.
It’s a lot of work, an expensive undertaking and a big risk, Wilgus says. But he’s willing to give it his all because this is his dream a midsummer night under the stars, where he’ll conduct his orchestra and captivate crowds with Strauss waltzes and music by Miller, Ellington, Gershwin, and Rodgers & Hammerstein.
“If the goal is to fill our shows at the Palace Theatre, generate funds to perpetuate the programs that will continue to foster economic development, and allow our 300 local singers, musicians and dancers to use their talents then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
How to reach: Spectacular Music Productions (330) 453-6086
If you want to discuss rapid start-up, accelerated growth and IPO exit strategies, Jeff Clair wouldn’t be your likely source. But if you want to learn why some consider it crucial to take your own sweet time to build a successful business, pull up a chair.
Clair is president of a Canton firm that some refer to as “the dot-com behind the dot-coms,” partly because Data Direct Inc. (www.datadirect.com) develops and hosts Web sites, with an emphasis on e-commerce and database development. The designation also applies because Clair was a pioneer who launched the area’s first independent Internet firm, and he’s outlasted many new-sprung competitors despite his slow, strategic approach to growth.
Clair, 44, started his company in 1984 as a sole proprietorship. His initial focus was database development and Unix consulting, and his key customer was B.F. Goodrich. Ten years later, Clair decided the Internet had progressed to the point where it was time to quit his day job and incorporate his company. (He was an electronics and programming specialist at Aultman Hospital.)
“At that time, the Internet was predominately Unix-based, and that’s where our core competency was. So it was a natural evolution for us to get into the Web,” he says.
Back then, many sacrifices were necessary to build a successful Internet firm, says Clair, because the Web’s potency had not yet been proven in terms of a return on investment. Client education was a major part of every sales presentation, and to build a reputation and a portfolio, Clair designed many sites without charge, or for next to nothing.
Since then, the Internet has become a must-have marketing tool for every business, and Clair’s company has proven itself as a preferred provider. Still, he has taken small steps in moving his company up the ladder of success. Today, doing business at 4565 Dressler Road in Canton, Data Direct employs 10 people a staff Clair says is small, but strategic.
“I’ve watched other companies quickly spring from two to 50 employees, then lose their major clients and have to lay off their employees. I didn’t want that to happen to us, because the strength of this company lies in the expertise of our employees,” he says.
As for Data Direct’s clients, the CEOs and business managers of those companies credit Clair’s strategic specialization and appreciate his approach to growth.
Bill Jasso, vice president for public affairs at Time Warner in Northeast Ohio, says that in 1995, when Time was searching for site developers to help create Web content for the launch of Roadrunner, the nation’s first high-speed online computer service, Clair was selected for more than one reason.
“Here was a guy who grasped what we were looking for, which was someone who saw the advantages of creating Web content in a broadband environment,” Jasso says. “We also appreciated Jeff’s business sense. He wasn’t one of these get in, get rich and get out guys. He looked at this as a business for the long term, so we saw him as someone we could develop a long-term relationship with which is essential for any business activity.”
Mark Adams, president of The Rogers Company a Mentor-based tradeshow booth designer was one of Clair’s first clients. He, too, says Clair’s business approach was a deciding factor in doing business with Data Direct.
“When we hired Jeff to do our first Web site in 1995, I liked the fact that here was a guy trying to get a company going, and he was going at it with consistent, measured growth as opposed to stratospheric numbers,” says Adams, still a loyal Data Direct client.
The company’s numbers have reached $1.2 million in annual sales, a figure Clair says is notable considering he’s come this far on his own.
“I’ve looked at investors and venture capital, but I didn’t want to have to go that route because I wanted to keep control of the company and keep it headed in a specific direction,” says Clair.
Holding tight to the reins has necessitated insightful planning and creative thinking, he says, explaining that one of the ways he’s grown the numbers is by establishing strategic partnerships.
“Our strategy involved developing partnerships with local advertising agencies because, since the Web is an advertising vehicle, we knew they could offer their own clients Internet marketing options along with their other advertising efforts,” Clair says.
Among the alliances are those with Canton companies Crowl Montgomery & Clark Inc., Innis Maggiore Group and Covey & Koons Inc.
“Our partnership has worked well because we both have a firm understanding of what the Web can accomplish for a company,” says Rod McGregor, senior vice president of Crowl Montgomery & Clark. “Jeff also knows what he’s good at and he knows what we’re good at. We handle the strategic issues of marketing and operational directives of our clients’ Web sites, and he’s involved in the back-end decisions, like the database and e-commerce applications. So we’ve meshed well.”
Innis Maggiore president Dick Maggiore says that once his firm determines the creative direction for a client Web site, Data Direct tackles all the complicated, back-end applications.
“It’s a partnership in which we complement each other, and we’re able to provide our clients a complete package because Data Direct also houses some of our client sites on their server,” says Maggiore.
Covey & Koons president Rod A. Covey says, “It’s been a great partnership, great for our business and great for our clients, because Data Direct provides all the technical support we need.”
To provide that technical support and solve problems for clients, Clair has made strategic investments in technology.
“We’ve constantly added and upgraded new equipment in the past few years, and Oracle was probably our biggest investment in one fell swoop,” Clair says, confiding that the Oracle software a $100,000 investment enhanced Data Direct’s e-commerce site development capabilities.
For example, when Myers Tire Supply wanted to expand its market and move into e-commerce, Data Direct used the Oracle software to build a database that enables multiple searches, including keyword, manufacturer, product code and pull down menus. Oracle was also used to develop the database for Stark County Family Council’s site which provides resource referrals to the community and transmits user requests to more than 130 cooperating agencies.
“We’ve also made significant investments in the servers in our T-1 connectivity to the Internet,” says Clair, noting Data Direct began offering hosting solutions five years ago.
But Clair’s colleagues say he’s been careful not to overinvest in technology.
“A lot of Web companies have gone under because the tendency too often is to become enamored with the latest and greatest of technologies,” says McGregor. “Jeff knows that in this business, you can’t overcommit to capital expenditures of technology. You have to have the business in hand before you start committing all sorts of funds for growth. He’s taken a more structured and conservative approach than what you might find in a similar operation of his size.”
Clair has also been careful to stick with his specialty, rather than trying to offer every Web-related service. As the Internet became more widely used and companies increasingly wanted to have more than just a static Web presence, Clair strengthened his forte to meet their needs.
“Rather than putting up brochure-type Web sites, we moved into the interactive and database arenas, because that’s where our expertise was, and those are the areas that offer more benefits to the client and the consumer,” he says.
Clair recalls that his first e-commerce client was Conferon, a Twinsburg seminar-management firm for which Data Direct designed online registration sites, collected registration and ordered information entered by users, encrypted the data and electronically forwarded it to the client.
From there, Clair started providing myriad e-commerce solutions for other companies from order processing and fulfillment services to intensive database design and interactive site development.
He was also careful not to offer off-the-shelf packages that didn’t specifically meet a client’s need.
“We decided to specialize in finding solutions for clients by sitting down with them, listening to what they really needed, and designing solutions especially for them,” says Clair.
More than anything, Clair says he’s learned from experience.
“As far as the planning goes, a lot of my growth has been planned, but so much of it is experience as I go, from cash management to sales and marketing. You have to wear so many different hats and it’s an enormous education process. But I’ve learned so much about running a business and what it takes to survive,” he says.
Clair says he plans to guide Data Direct into the new millennium by expanding e-business development with regard to extranets and intranets.
“Extranets and intranets can be applied to a variety of scenarios to take e-commerce to a different level of business. Our Oracle partnership strengthens our product offering and we can confidently focus on developing this area,” he says.
He also plans to strengthen strategic partnerships crucial to his success.
“We’ve worked hard in the past year by analyzing the market and identifying our own strengths and weaknesses. This year we will pursue strategic alliances to assist with areas outside of our core competencies,” he says.
“We’ve already the felt the effect of our focus on these areas, and I’m confident that we will meet our goals.” How to reach: Data Direct Inc. (330) 499-0692; (888) 438-6768 www.datadirect.com