No magic involved in success on Web

Venture: Starting and operating an Internet business is hard work, would-be Web moguls are warned.

April 18, 2000|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,SUN STAFF

If there's a strategy for making a million dollars by joining the rush for a piece of the cyberbusiness boom, it seems a lot like the one for scoring big in the pre-digital age.

Namely, tightly focus your business strategy, treat your customers and employees exceptionally well, and -- above all -- work very, very hard.

Even then, there's no guarantee.

"The road to riches on the Internet is littered with more failures than successes," Shervin Pishevar, chief executive officer and founder of, told an audience at the Maryland Business Expo yesterday. The Baltimore-based cyberstart-up just landed $10 million in venture capital.

"The media has focused on the big overnight successes, but I can tell you there is a lot of trials and hard work involved. There's no magic formula."

Pishevar was one of a half-dozen entrepreneurs who outlined the rules to starting and operating a successful digital venture for women and minority business owners at yesterday's expo, organized by the Maryland Small Business Advisory Council with the Richburg Group agency.

The daylong event at the Inner Harbor Marriott, titled "Spanning the Digital Divide to Profitability," was meant to educate small and minority-owned businesses about leveraging the Internet and other emerging technologies to expand business.

While others echoed Pishevar's warning that a business is not a guaranteed bonanza, they also outlined some rules that at least offered some hope of success:

First, before launching a cyberbusiness, conduct exhaustive research so you deeply understand the territory you intend to mine -- and the potential competition.

"Focus on what you know and have a passion for. If you find there are 20 competitors out ahead of you, forget it and move on unless you have something significantly different to offer," said Pishevar.

Second, test your technology, product or service first on people you trust, advised York Eggleston, founder of Baltimore-based Crave Technologies Inc., which designs online promotional campaigns. Use their suggestions and advice to make improvements so that your business will find favor among a wide audience, he said.

Once launched, focus heavily on customer service. Treat them well. And treat employees very well.

"In this industry, keeping really good employees is critical to success. Treat them like customers," said Debra Lynn Shapiro, president and founder of Integrated Technology Solutions Inc. a Baltimore-based electronic commerce training and "intelligent" traffic control system design firm.

A good lawyer is also a valuable asset, said Jemel Hatcher, president and co-founder of a start-up that plans to begin offering wireless Internet services nationwide in June. "The best thing I've done so far is hire a good lawyer. They can help you get funding, protect your intellectual property and help you line up partnerships."

Above all, said these "new economy" warriors, be prepared for a ton of hard work.

Pishevar recalled working deep into the night for months with his business partner, Drew Morris, refining the operating system that is the heart of his company's business service. He then spent several more months getting friends and family members to front $160,000 in seed money to get going.

One of the hardest jobs is raising money, despite reports of millions being lavished by venture capitalists on Internet start-ups.

James H. Mitchell, chief executive officer of AlphaOmega InfoSystems Inc. of Baltimore, can attest to that.

His company, he said, is trying to raise $10 million to expand marketing of ChurchWorks 2000, an administration software program for churches.

"Even if you have the greatest idea on the Internet, you still need the capital to finance building the business and marketing."

Shapiro said one of the best but toughest lessons she has learned is that being a technology expert is no particular advantage when it comes to doing business over the Internet.

"Even the tech geeks have to learn to understand the business world -- what large corporations day-to-day policies and procedures are for conducting business. If you don't take the time to do that, you're doomed," said Shapiro.

And, she warned, smart marketing is vital. "You can have the most wonderful idea in the world, but you'll get nowhere unless you're constantly getting it out there in front of the customer, she said.

Still, she an other experts at yesterday's event noted, the Internet continues to open enormous opportunities for women and minority-owned businesses.

"The Internet is definitely leveling the playing field for the small companies competing with the large ones," said Hatcher of "E-mail and business transactions don't know what your skin color, height, weight or nationality is."

But, warned Crave Technologies' Eggleston, if you're jumping into the Internet to become the next dot-com millionaire, it's best to think again.

"If you are purely an opportunist, don't start an Internet company. The struggle will try you. But if you have a passion for what you are going to do, then there's hope."

Award winners

Six Maryland business, economic development and political leaders received recognition yesterday from the Maryland Small Business Advisory Council for contributions to economic deveopment in Maryland.

The Economic Impact Development Awards were given at a luncheon ceremony during an expo on "Spanning the Digital Divide to Profitability" in Baltimore yesterday. Recipients were:

Nathan Chapman, president and chief executive officer of Carefirst BlueCross and BlueShield, the corporate leadership award; Randolph Phipps, Phipps Contracting Co., leadership in contracting award; Del. Howard Rawlings, legislative leadership award; William Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse Inc., leadership in development award; and Stanley Tucker, president and chief executive officer of MMG Inc., minority business development award.

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