Cornering a Niche on the Web

 By Douglas MacMillan

Nathan McKelvey, president and CEO, Jets International

http://www.jets.com
Founded in 1999
About 27 employees
$17 million in revenues in 2005

Niche: Private jet charter industry

New service: McKelvey’s company uses a bidding process to do for the private jet charter industry what sites like Travelocity and Expedia have done for consumer air travel.

How the company did it: McKelvey invested about $60,000 of his personal savings and did a lot of grunt work to get the company off the ground. “I started quite naively with my sister-in-law in a borrowed office space, making around 100 phone calls a day,” he says. “Over time we gained traction through force of willpower.” At the beginning, McKelvey also programmed both the Web software and the plane schedule integration database himself, using Microsoft Visual Basic and Microsoft SQL Server.

Lark Mason, president, and Ben Turk Tolub, vice-president, iGavel

http://www.igavel.com
Founded in 2003
Nine employees
$6.5 million in revenues in 2005

Niche: Fine art auctions

New service: Mason and Tolub, former employees at Sothebys.com, are bringing the art and antique community into the digital age with a site where savvy collectors can purchase guaranteed high-end fine art and antiques. Unlike eBay, only trusted sellers in the art community are permitted to put items up for auction.

How the company did it: While Mason, a regular appraiser on PBS’s Antiques Roadshow, provided the company’s business expertise, Tolub applied his technical knowledge to building the site’s functionality. “What we’re finding now are a lot of experienced sellers who really know the art and antiques market [but] never got into the computer side of things. It’s all about making it easy for those people to get online,” says Tolub. iGavel operates on AuctionAnything.com, an auction software provider, and a custom Filemaker Pro database, which manages pre- and post-auction transactions. In all, the pair spent about $50,000 of their personal savings and thousands of hours getting the company off the ground.

Bradley Inman, founder and CEO, Turnhere.com

http://www.turnhere.com
Founded in 2005
18 employees
Estimated $1.5 million in revenues in 2006

Niche: Advertising/travel information

New service: The ads on the advertising/travel information hybrid site double as video highlights of the people, places, and businesses that make particular cities unique, giving local merchants affordable access to tourists planning trips.

How the company did it: “We saw the migration of advertisers to the Internet as soon as bandwidth improved and production costs came down,” says Inman. “All of a sudden you were in a position to create a TV-quality ad with Internet distribution.” Inman focused on content, paying about 2,000 independent filmmakers for quality, two-minute videos. He also spent about $1 million of his personal savings to hire the programmers who built the site, consult a marketing/branding team, and conduct a focus group to understand how consumers approach Internet video.

Robert McLemore, founder, director, and president, HouseRaising

http://www.houseraising.com
Founded in 1999
35 employees
$500,000 in revenues in 2005

Niche: Home construction project management

New service: McLemore’s site provides homebuilders and clients with an online meeting place equipped with automated problem-solving tools for managing the construction of a home from start to finish.

How the company did it: McLemore had built custom homes for more than 40 years and felt he knew the challenges of bringing together investors, vendors, and builders to meet a buyer’s goals. McLemore had to program 1,269 problem scenarios into his database to create an efficient and practical home planning software. To build the site, McLemore employed a software development company, LearnBytes, which HouseRaising ended up acquiring completely. The labor-intensive development process took six years and $5 million of McLemore’s personal finances.

Anne Afshari and Laura Hagler, directors and owners, Exclusively RNs

http://www.exclusivelyrns.com
Founded in 2002
29 employees
$140,000 in revenues in 2005; estimated $200,000 in 2006

Niche: Health-care advice for women

New service: Noticing that the doctors in their birth center spent an inordinate amount of time on the phone giving routine advice to pregnant women, Anne Afshari and Laura Hagler created a business that charges doctors and midwives a monthly fee for answering calls and giving OB/GYN-trained advice around the clock to nervous moms-to-be.

How the company did it: After struggling with a clunky voicemail system, the entrepreneurs discovered a virtual phone routing platform that allowed them to hire work-from-home nurses around the country. “Virtual PBX provided all the features we needed to continue to expand and create, for about $600 a month,” says Afshari.

Source: www.businessweek.com

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