Web-based Biz Finds a Home With Microsoft

By Gerry Blackwell | Posted September 16, 2004

Starting a virtual retail business in the aftermath of the implosion of the Internet economy three years ago, takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude — though perhaps not as much today as it once did.

When tech-industry survivor Erik Viafore relaunched Mountain Plus Outdoor Gear last fall, he at least had the Microsoft Small Business Center (MSBC) to help him get it up and running quickly and inexpensively.

The Microsoft Small Business Center (formerly bCentral) is a portal site that provides advice, information and a comprehensive suite of online tools that makes starting a Web business feasible even for operations that run on shoestring budgets.

And Viafore, CEO of the fledgling Mountain Plus, is exploiting the Microsoft portal to the hilt, using several of the tools for mission-critical online sales and marketing functions and dipping into the information resources for inspiration and quick refreshers on the fundamentals of his business.

"As a former technology professional — I was the CIO at my last company — I tried to make sure our technology decisions were wise ones," Viafore says. "Technology can be so expensive. The vast majority of what we do is outsourced, and MSBC is the prime example of that."

Slow and Steady
Outsourcing and paying the relatively low monthly fees Microsoft charges for its online catalog, credit card processing and Web marketing and monitoring tools allowed the company to start very small and grow "organically," Viafore said.

He and his partner are still the only full-time employees — though they do now use part-timers and interns. They're more than happy with progress to date. The company racked up sales of more $100,000 in less than a year. "That's pretty good given that we really didn't hit the holiday season last year," Viafore says.

The company's strategy is simply stated. "We're trying to replicate the philosophy and mind set of traditional outdoor goods retailers — great service, deep knowledge of products and ongoing relationships with customers — but doing it on the Internet only."

The core tool that Mountain Plus uses from Microsoft's outsourced small business e-commerce suite is Commerce Manager, for which the company pays $25 a month. Commerce Manager provides software and hosting for the company's online catalog, customer shopping carts, secure ordering and credit card (and PayPal) processing.

It also lets users create coupons for discount plans, use a Commerce Manager add-in for Microsoft's FrontPage WYSIWYG Web page creation tool to add customized product pages to an existing Web site, and add product-specific "Add to Cart" links to any Web site. Around-the-clock tech support is included in the price.

Save Time and Money: Don't Do it Yourself
Viafore only briefly considered building the catalog and site in-house, which bigger and better-funded companies certainly do. "You'd pay tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you'd have to increase head count and invest more in equipment to do it in-house," he said.

Outsourcing was clearly the way to go, but there are "about 500 options" for small businesses looking to outsource e-commerce services, Viafore says. He checked out several.

One of Commerce Manager's key differentiator was that it allowed Mountain Plus to build a catalog with an almost unlimited number of products. (The limit is 10,000.) Some others allowed fewer than 100 products for the base price and charged extra for additional products.

It's also easy to use. Viafore is particularly impressed with the way Commerce Manager lets him manage and maintain his images on the site and do bulk uploads of new product lines. He creates a spreadsheet with barebones information about the product and the images, uploads it and Commerce Manager creates the pages and links to the images within hours, a job that would take days using more manual methods.

"That's a feature that others don't have," he says. "That's huge. It was one of the most compelling arguments [for using the product.]"

Viafore also likes that he can submit his entire Commerce Manager database as a flat file to Froogle, the Google-operated shopping-specific search engine that has been in beta testing for over a year. "That was a god-send," Viafore says. "It was a process that used to take hours and now it's down to a couple of seconds."

Surefire Services
Commerce Manager is just one way Mountain Plus exploits MSBC. The company is also using its other services:

  • Banner Ads
  • List Builder for e-mail marketing
  • Submit It for site optimization and search engine submissions
  • Fast Counter for Web site monitoring.

The Banner Ad service allows Viafore to create new banner ads or use existing ads and track his campaigns. He can advertise to the entire network (200,000 sites) or target specific categories. Pricing is very simple: Mountain Plus pays only for results — $50 per 100 click-throughs.

In keeping with its objective of emulating bricks-and-mortar outdoor gear retailers, Mountain Plus publishes a bi-weekly customer newsletter with short product features and articles. Viafore uses the MSBC List Builder service to manage the process.

List Builder, which costs $20 per month per 1,000 recipients, provides HTML templates for creating professional-looking e-mail newsletters — or users can upload their own HTML. Personalization features allow Mountain Plus to address e-mail recipients by name, and it can also send targeted campaigns based on demographic information.

The service lets Viafore track e-mail marketing campaigns in real time and see how many recipients received, opened messages and clicked on the links within. List Builder also lets users like Mountain Plus choose single or double opt-in — providing a way for subscribers to confirm their choice to join a list.

"And it integrates nicely with Commerce Manager, Submit It and Position Agent [the Submit It reporting utility]," Viafore notes.

Submit It, MSBC's search engine optimization service, costs $50 a year for 10 URLs and one Microsoft Small Business Directory listing. It provides expert advice and a keyword tool for finding the best keyword phrases to include in your pages to get hits — and does the actual submitting of pages to the search engines. Mountain Plus uses it to track progress by monitoring search engine rankings, check link popularity and get notification of broken links. Online support is again included in the price.

"It allows us to submit our site and pages to hundreds of search engines," Viafore says. "We've been very successful with it. It's a great tool to have."

The best of the MSBC tools may be Fast Counter Pro, a Web site monitoring and traffic analysis tool, he says. It lets him monitor the success of the site in real-time, measure the return on investment in various advertising campaigns, track conversions (how many site visitors actually buy something?), see which keyword phrases are being used in search engines to find the site, and find out which referring sites (search engines etc.) send the most buyers.

Fast Counter costs $20 a month. That includes up to 50,000 page views per month. (Microsoft charges 30 cents per 1,000 page views above the 50,000.) Online 24x7 technical support is included in the price.

"It's all Web-based and very configurable," Viafore says. "You can get standard reports or customize — you can slice it daily, weekly or run on-the-fly reports. And you can export all those reports into a [text] file so you can plug them into a spreadsheet."

He's impressed at the way Microsoft continually improves the MSBC services. A recent change to back-end shopping cart software, for example, resulted in Mountain Plus quadrupling hits it got from Google. Microsoft also recently changed Web page URL's across the board making them simpler and therefore more "search engine friendly." The result was that shoppers doing searches found Mountain Plus's pages popping up more frequently.

"Literally overnight, we saw revenues multiply by two and a half times," Viafore says. "Our conversion rates and our revenues went through the roof."

Mountain Plus may eventually grow big enough that it will want to bring its e-commerce operations in house, but it's still a long way from that day. In the meantime, Viafore is absolutely convinced he can do no better than the Microsoft Small Business Center.

"We're saving several hundreds of dollars a year over [Microsoft's outsourced] competitors," he says. "Microsoft offers more features, allows more products, provides better support and has an altogether more compelling product. Dollar for dollar, feature for feature, the others didn't compare."

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980's. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine. Blackwells knowledge is vast and his wit enduring.

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