In early 2000, Peter Nauert, chairman of Ceres Group Inc., approached Jim Fisher with what seemed like a backward idea during the dot-com explosion: He wanted to sell insurance over the Web, but rather than just deal directly with consumers, Nauert wanted his agents involved.
The concept was a distinct departure from that of Ceres' competitors, such as Progressive, that were eliminating agents from the transaction.
The project demanded sophisticated software. For prospective clients, it needed to be polished to keep the average shopper from clicking away from the site. On the back end, it had to be easy to use and update because agents needed to design their own Web pages and connect them with the hub site, QQLink.
"They said, 'Our agents made our company what it is,'" recalls Fisher, president of IdeaStar Inc. "(Nauert) wanted to create a Web site where you (as a client) can assign yourself to an agent and buy the policy from the agent or online. We had to create the technology to make all that happen. We have almost 2,000 agents cooking on this right now."
IdeaStar's flagship software, GalaxyBuilder, has quietly helped several Cleveland-area companies make a loud splash on the Web, but has drawn scant attention to IdeaStar itself. In short, GalaxyBuilder allows a nontechnical person to create a professional, multifunctional Web site in a few simple steps.
It's the foundation for Ceres Group's QQLink Web site, which connects customers to more than 1,600 insurance agents represented individually by unique Web pages. The idea was Nauret's, but the technology was all Fisher's.
"We've sold more than $1.3 million in annual life premiums so far this year," says Nancy Zalud, senior vice president at Ceres Group and a co-developer of QQLink. "Nearly half of that was in the month of May. IdeaStar helped us set that up. They've been very flexible in changes and adjustments that we've made."
Another company aided by IdeaStar's technology is e2grow.com. Founded by Dennis Barba Jr. in 2000, the community portal site provides neighborhood news, sports and business directory information to consumers but generates revenue by giving local small business owners a Web presence. A subscription fee lets business owners build their own sites and connect with customers directly in their area through e2grow.
Like Nauret's, Barba's business plan seemed to go against the grain. Instead of trying to reach a worldwide audience like many content driven sites, Barba's focus is to attract a local but Web-savvy audience. In the company's first year, Barba launched community portals for eight Northeast Ohio communities and four in the Seattle-area, and landed investors in 14 states. Fisher sits on e2grow's board of advisers, as well.
"We wouldn't be here without them," Barba says. "We got it done on time, and most importantly, within our budget. It's been a good relationship."
Fisher isn't solely responsible for Ceres and e2grow's Web successes, not by a long shot. But it is an unusually humble gesture for Fisher not to slap an IdeaStar or GalaxyBuilder logo on the sites or tie his name to them in some way.
"The fact remains, it's their responsibility to take the technology and make the business models work," says Fisher. "I'm glad I'm relieved of that. e2grow and Ceres bear the responsibility. But it is kind of cool to see it happen and see it work."
Fisher's process is straightforward: He signs a licensing agreement with clients, giving them permission to use his technology, while he agrees not create the same product for a competing client in the same industry.
"If you came to us and said, 'Give us a Web site builder, we'd say you have to cut a deal with e2Grow," Fishers says. "Customers want solutions that aren't all proprietary and locked down. They want to be able to modify and customize it. That's what's killing some of these big solution providers."
IdeaStar was called ProShows until 1999. Founded by Fisher in 1984, ProShows helped companies plan, organize and run business events and seminars using slide shows, videos and Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.
About 10 years later, Fisher added Web site development to his list of services. Steadily, the Internet services outpaced the other business segments until it was time for Fisher to reposition the company as an Internet solutions provider. Thus, IdeaStar was born.
So far, the key to Fisher's successful Web projects has been in the painstaking development process.
"We do plenty of listening to the customer or the market," Fisher says. "We strive to capture their vision and then devise unique solutions. Typically, it will be a business developer and one of our lead developers who work through this visioning process. It's the collaboration of a nontechnical and a technical person that's necessary to understand and execute the new innovation."
Once Fisher and his team are on the same page with the client, he turns the project over to his developers. Wayne Largent, IdeaStar's director of development, is an authority in an evolving school of programming called Extreme Programming (XP). If you couldn't guess by its name, XP is different than traditional software creation. Developed in the early 1990s, XP cuts development time in half, but is only beginning to gain widespread acceptance. Using templates and open code standards, the ultimate goal of XP is to get the technology to market more quickly.
"It used to be developers would have these very long development periods and very rigid methodology," Fisher says. "But in the last 10 years, there's this new phase where you go in and you pound away and you learn as you go and the client adds things and you add things."
Once a prototype is built, the original development team reassembles for a review and examination of the results. A final prototype is then ready for the arduous testing and piloting process. At the end, the project goes to the marketplace, where it's constantly measured and tested to find ways to improve it.
"At this point, either it's a winner or a dud," Fisher says. "So far, we've had all winners, but these are the risks we take using XP."
In the business world, risk is a given, and Fisher's risk-taking looks to be paying dividends. He's working on a new sister piece of software for GalaxyBuilder called CorpMeetings.
This product is also geared toward the nontechnical person. CorpMeetings traces back to Fisher's ProShows days when he helped companies organize business events and seminars.
"For people who plan meetings at corporations, it's a nightmare to get all the people registered," Fisher says. "I know what these poor people go through."
CorpMeetings automates event registration and management using opt-in e-mail. The software helps create, publish and maintain multiple registration sites, tracks participant registration and produces reports and registration information. It even sends a follow-up e-mail after the event.
"We're not going after the super-big conference or convention market," Fisher says. "We're looking for banks, law firms, large corporations, medium-sized corporations who spend a lot of time, preparing, tracking and managing the event registration."
If there's anything Fisher has learned from his time at IdeaStar, it is that going in a different direction --especially on the Web -- is usually a good thing.
"We've seen in the last year that the Web is not a business model in and of itself," he says. "It is simply a tool that can enhance existing businesses. There are some businesses that can use the Web solely as a business model, but it's pretty difficult."
How to reach: IdeaStar, (216) 587-9300