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Dot-com dining Featured

9:40am EDT July 22, 2002

Gregory Gerber and Thomas Sammons share the same corporate philosophy: Do the right things and do things right.

Sammons' career in systems management had spanned more than two decades when he decided to start 2nd Millenium Technologies Consulting in 1997. The following year, he teamed with Gerber, who had an extensive background in sales and marketing, and assembled a small team of Web designers and programmers.

The company set out to provide database-driven Web sites that were easy to navigate and likely to bring clients a healthy return on their investments. Initial clients who used 2MTC to design their sites included the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind and CIS Office Installations, both in Pittsburgh. Today, 2MTC's portfolio includes more than 60 completed sites designed for a wide variety of businesses.

The company also had a more aggressive, perhaps riskier long-term mission: to develop licensed database information tools. It realized this goal with the creation of two Web sites, www.Pittsburgh-Employment.com and www.Pittsburgh-Dining.com, which has since become its own entity.

The online jobs site ultimately helped 2MTC secure contracts with the Pittsburgh Technology Council and the Pittsburgh Children's Museum.

The Web sites have created their share of challenges. Gerber says Pittsburgh-Employment, for instance, was initially geared toward recruitment firms. But the company realized it faced intense competition from national online job sites and last summer, company executives decided to add the option of posting resumes on the site as a free service.

The strategy so far is paying off. More than 180 companies are listing openings on the site, which Gerber says often has more than 5,000 visitors a week.

"Our plans are to start charging a nominal fee and to have sponsors," Gerber says of the company's revenue-generating strategy. "Great American Federal is one of the sponsors, but we're looking for others."

Another potential claim to fame for 2MTC is Pittsburgh-Dining, launched in January after a two-year development phase. The original information tool has grown to 400 pages with five databases. Pittsburgh-Dining now is a separate business, at which Sammons serves as president and Stuart Lenehan is the director. Today, 157 restaurants are showcased on the site, which attracted nearly 500,000 hits over the past four months alone.

"It's our intention to keep improving the site, and we have many modifications planned," says Lenehan, who doesn't hold back his confidence in the site's content. "Currently, we think it's the most content-rich and full-featured site of its kind in the country, and the plans we have for revamping it will move it into the next generation. There will be no one else doing what we intend to do, and we'll be taking it into new markets within six months."

Lenehan declined to comment further on what the planned improvements will be and what new markets will be targeted. He did say, though, that the changes will make it easier for consumers to complete online transactions and enable restaurants and sponsors to do more to promote their business.

Gerber says the dining tool is extremely detailed, with the inclusion of menus, a calendar of events, information about dress codes and the noise factor at listed establishments, location of nearby movie theaters, and postings of band performances at regional venues. Searches can find which restaurants serve a certain dish and which theater is closest to an eatery.

The site also includes job openings at participating restaurants. One manager, Lenehan says, received more than 100 inquiries for a position at his restaurant that he had posted on the site. A commercial real estate site is in the works, and is expected to have an initial database of 2,500 properties for sale or lease.

"We're talking about going to other markets under the name commercialrealestateusa.com," Gerber says. "Our angle is for the consumer to find retail space or for a broker to find out what other listings there are. Our real money-maker will be with the membership, which is $89 a month for up to 10 listings, so businesses won't even need their own Web sites. We want to reach anyone who has anything to do with real estate."

In addition to creating the three information tools, Gerber says 2MTC is equally proud of its Web design work for big-name clients such as the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Pittsburgh GlassBlock, Adecco, Superior Selling, Regional Golf Publishing and Softspikes, a national company headquartered in Maryland.

"2MTC is continually researching new technology and seeking talented, creative individuals to develop, enhance and promote its superior products," Gerber says. "2MTC is prepared to meet the challenges of the next level in the Internet business-to-business regional portal and e-commerce marketplace and is encouraging investment into its technology, growth and strong management team."

Operations

2MTC plans to work with businesses interested in designing database-driven Web sites. Gerber says, "We're hungry," but points out that the company typically will not complete any project unless the client makes an initial investment of at least $10,000. The average investment has ranged from $15,000 to $50,000, Gerber says.

He adds that clients usually save money in the long run with 2MTC because it gives them the ability to make changes to their site, such as adding events to a calendar, without learning technical Internet language.

2MTC has completed about 60 sites since 1997 and another 12 are in the works. Gerber serves as president of 2MTC and calls himself the front guy or ambassador, while Sammons, his partner, is president of Pittsburgh-Dining.com. Lenehan is director of the dining tool, while Cindy Gaich, customer relations and sales coordinator, can tell you all about Pittsburgh-Employment.com.

The United States has witnessed an explosion in the creation of Web development companies over the past five years with the expansion of e-commerce. Gerber maintains, however, that 2MTC is still at the top of the list in terms of client involvement and the creation of detailed, easy-to-use database-driven sites.

Consumer-friendly enhancements are planned for Pittsburgh-Dining.com, Pittsburgh-Employment.com and 2MTC's commercial real estate development site, which is still in the works.

Sales and marketing strategy

"Our Web site is where we get a lot of our business,"' says Gerber.

The company also relies on advertising in regional publications and word-of-mouth referrals from satisfied customers. There are three sales/marketing employees at 2MTC. And the company's Web site comes complete with a list of clients, many of whom have included testimonials about their experiences with 2MTC.

Gerber says the company prides itself on developing clean, content-rich, easy-to-navigate sites, which contain no bells and whistles unless such a design is requested. Clients are given log-in access and a password so they can watch and be involved in site development.

Financing

Neither Gerber nor Sammons is shy about their desire to raise additional capital from local private investors for a business they insist is worthy of being noticed by investors. Sammons is searching for up to $3 million in financing for Pittsburgh-Dining, while Gerber's goal is between $250,000 and $500,000. Gerber says the businesses were financed from the get-go primarily by his own investment and have been kept alive by the money clients have paid to have Web sites catered to their needs.

"We've had a fairly good cash flow," Gerber says. "We started with three people and now we have 14. We also have about 20 computers. I funded most of it, and we have a line of credit with Great American Federal and Pennsylvania Capital Bank that wants us to do a site for them.

"We're seeking funding because we want to upgrade. Our server is co-located with Fiber Network Solutions, which is now a strategic partner of ours for the high-speed connection. It cost us a lot to put that together, and it's costing us a lot to upgrade our software and hardware needs to produce high-end Web sites."

Gerber says he spends half of his business day chasing money owed to the company by clients. Securing investors, he says, would enable 2MTC to enhance its equipment, expand its marketing strategy, increase its staff and shorten project completion time.

Gerber estimates that a $250,000 infusion of cash would pay dividends in terms of doubling the $1 million which the company expects to make in sales this year, and he has talked with officials at Innovation Works and a variety of investment bankers.

Sammons says investments likewise would help Pittsburgh-Dining add new features and explore additional markets.

Sales to date

According to Gerber, 2MTC did about $500,000 in sales in 1999 and is on track to increase that to $1 million this year. Sammons says Pittsburgh-Dining.com is expected to gross $500,000 this year, with hopes of achieving $3 million by the end of 2001.

Greatest challenge

Gerber says the biggest problem 2MTC faces is educating people about the difference between a Web site that is database-driven and one which is static.

"People are uninformed," he says. "I've had people ask why our Web site might cost $15,000 when the guy down the street can develop one for $5,000. They don't understand that ours is database-driven, rich in content and provides more.

"Business owners look at the bottom line and take the lowest bid without having any idea of what they are paying for. We had three clients where we bid on jobs and lost the bids, only to have the companies come back later and ask us to do the job.''

How to reach: 2MTC at (412)422-4460.

Tracy Carbasho is a free-lance writer based in the Pittsburgh area.