Case Study: Small Dog, Big Byte

Back in 1995, software developer Don Mayer saw this Internet thing happening and decided it would be a great way to sell a lot of product with low overhead. So he quit his day job and hung a dot-com shingle.

Now, here’s the weird part — it worked.

Unlike so many others who chased a similar dream, Mayer managed to put all the pieces in place and make it succeed. As CEO of Small Dog Electronics, Mayer has set a benchmark for how to run a small dot-com. He and his 30 employees picked up the Web Marketing Association’s 2003 Standard of Excellence Award not just because they have survived the turmoil of the last few years, but because they have done so in style.

Sit … Stay
Mayer does not just sell Apple products. Rather, he sells a sense of community. That human touch, that feeling of kinship, has helped to drive his site’s success.

“I deliberately chose a name that was not ‘Macintosh this’ or ‘Compu-something else.’ I wanted to create the kind of personality for the company that might be attractive to customers, to present a very soft and approachable image on a very hard media,” he explained.

In practical terms this means dogs: Cartoon dogs all over the site, plus a special area where some 1,500 people have posted pictures of themselves and their dogs. It also means Web cams, which are positioned strategically throughout the physical offices of Small Dog. That way, visitors to the site can see the actual people behind the business.

“My company is like the mom-and-pop story on the Internet, where people can call and talk to the CEO and get some advice. They are confident about their purchases because of the personality behind it,” said Mayer.

Kibbles and Bytes
Mayer has used technology to his advantage in his effort to create a site where people can feel at home. By serving up his inventory database onto the site, for example, he is able to indicate the stocking status of every product listed for sale. “So a customer can come to our website and see if we have 25 of something or three of something, or if it is backordered,” he said.

The firm also puts out half a dozen electronic newsletters, all of which are archived on the site. “Kibbles and Bytes,” for instance, reaches about 60,000 subscribers and discusses products and specials, company news, and a rant column in which Mayer blows off steam about whatever is on his mind. It’s a fair system, though, since users to the site can visit the “Soapbox” and offer their two cents in return.

It might seem like a heck of a way to sell computers, but experts say this personal touch has been a big plus for Small Dog.

A Loyal Friend
At the promotional firm Marketing Partners, co-president Pat Heffernan has helped Small Dog to reach its target audience. She said the company’s touchy-feely stance has helped to narrow down potential Internet placements.

“Because Small Dog has an unusual personality, our supposition is that their ideal customer may also,” she said. So while the company has of course taken banner ads on all the big Apple sites, “we also go where there may be no information whatsoever that leads one to think that computers and technology are on the minds of browsers — lifestyle sites such arts or theater sites. They don’t show up on anything that say computers, but there is an affinity, a value-space alignment.”

The “value-space” she has in mind refers especially to Small Dog’s commitment to social causes. On the front page of the site, prominently placed, there is a button for charitable giving. Make a purchase at the site and you’ll have the chance to give to charity, with Small Dog matching your donation dollar for dollar. The firm also gives 10 percent of its profits to charity.

“Profits are a necessary part of the business, but the company also has a responsibility to give back to the community,” said Mayer. “A business has to be more than just a money machine. It has to have a personality.”

A simple formula? Perhaps. But it’s one that has helped Small Dog to stay standing when so many other pure-play dot-coms have gone to the pound.

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