|Los Angeles Times|
When former real estate broker Craig Voiding turned to technology from the slumping real estate market of the mid-1990s, he understandably marketed his self-taught Web site design skills to other real estate firms. That niche worked, but Volding realized that he needed to move beyond his comfort zone to find additional customers. His challenge-to develop technology that would diversify his customer base and then market it successfully-is ongoing. Along the way, he has learned not to limit his product's potential and to use education as a way to sell his services. Volding was interviewed by freelance writer Karen E. Klein.
I had to find a new source of revenue about five to seven years ago because the real estate market was in a big slump. My background is in sales and marketing, so I started learning about Internet technology and put together my own Web site as a new marketing tool. When my Web site achieved its purpose, other agents started asking me to do Web sites for them, and I realized there was a business opportunity here. My wife took over the real estate operation and I started a Web site design and hosting business.
Initially, we sold just to real estate agents. We realized that they needed to be able to quickly and inexpensively update their sites because the market is always changing, with new listings, price reductions and sales. So I developed a technology that lets any user-even someone without technical training-update their site themselves, using a password and an interface program accessible from my Web site. That technology soon became popular, and I realized that I could branch out to a market a lot broader than just Realtors. Not only would my sales increase, but we wouldn't be concentrating on only one target group, so we'd be less vulnerable to changes and downturns in that single industry. We also found that we can charge a little more for hosting Web sites because we offer the do-it-yourself technology, and we also save on employees because the clients make their own changes. That way, we don't have to keep five programmers on staff, sitting around waiting for work orders to come in.
My challenge was how to get the word out to other industries. I tried everything. I hired field sales people to do cold calling, went door-to-door myself and attended industry trade shows. Most of it was not successful, especially the trade shows, which were very expensive and we were only guessing which industries were ready and receptive to our product. What has been more successful is educating people about the Web and about e-mail marketing opportunities and also telling them about our product and service. We go to chambers of commerce and put on training seminars for their members as well as show them the advantages of what we're doing. Small-business owners are very threatened and intimidated by the idea of having to master new technology, and a lot of them don't want to admit that they don't understand it. We have to overcome that intimidation level and take time to help them get over their fears.
Our target market is now the small- to mid-size business owner in Southern California. The lesson we learned was not to limit ourselves. There was a bigger potential for our company than we first imagined. We thought that Realtors were the only ones who needed constant changes on their Web sites, but then we realized that all small-business people were frustrated with their Web sites because they needed content changes but it was time-consuming and expensive to make them using outside contractors. We also thought originally that our product would not apply to large businesses because most of them have in-house IT staff and huge Web sites. But we discovered that our instincts and assumptions were wrong, since our product can be used by individual departments within larger corporations that maintain department-level information themselves.
For instance, we got an order from the human resources department of Zacky Farms. They need to post job openings and other announcements on their Web page and they don't want to wait for the in-house technical staff to get around to doing it for them, which can take a long time. Using our product, they have a department staffer make the changes to their pages without having to call in someone with advanced technical skills. That sale taught me to question my assumptions on a regular basis. We have to focus our marketing efforts on our target client group, but we don't have to preclude sales that may not be so obvious.
If your business can provide a lesson to other entrepreneurs, contact Karen E. Klein at the Los Angeles Times, 1333 S. Mayflower Ave., Suite 100, Monrovia, CA 91016 or at email@example.com. Include your name, address and telephone number.