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E-Business Secrets
Brian Livingston
The secrets I learned as a 'Geek for a day'

When I started this newsletter in March, I announced that I'd select two readers at random and give them my services free as a "Geek for a Day." These two readers aren't exactly a scientific sample, but they sure were random, and I learned a truckload of e-commerce tricks.

My first trip was to Salem, Va., to the headquarters of Robertson Marketing. This 75-employee business was a traditional "pick, pack, and ship" service long before the Internet boom. The company silk-screens logos onto T-shirts, embroiders designs on baseball caps, and maintains a warehouse full of such merchandise, along with crateloads of marketing literature. The company's customers are salespeople who order the handouts companies need when going, say, to a trade show. Robertson delivers, providing a function its clients can't or don't want to perform.

Today, CEO Tom Robertson Jr. says his company makes about 15 percent of its revenue through Web sites it builds for its clients. These sites -- for such brands as ExxonMobil and Food Network -- respond to requests from the clients' salespeople and, in some cases, fulfill orders from the public. For example, at you can buy the special cookbooks and ingredients that the cable network features. Everything is handled by Robertson, although the company remains invisible to consumers.

Robertson Marketing shows that one secret of a successful e-business is to have a profitable brick-and-mortar business, then add Web capabilities when a client is willing to pay for them. The company's own site is notable for poking fun at itself, including a Shockwave show that invites you to "Build Your Own Account Manager."

I traveled to Scottsdale, Ariz., to visit my second winner at Trendstat Capital Management. This company operates various investment accounts that typically require a multi-million-dollar minimum balance.

Trendstat performs no e-commerce on its site, but instead uses its Web pages to publish detailed performance statistics for potential investors. The company receives numerous inquiries because its CEO, Tom Basso, was featured in Jack Schwager's book on successful traders, "The New Market Wizards," and sells his own book, "Panic Proof Investing."

Basso tells about the time several years ago when an investor in Saudi Arabia expressed interest in opening an account. Trendstat sent a packet of financial disclosures to the Persian Gulf by overnight express. Today, there's no need to do so because the same information is accessible via the Web. "We eliminate one whole 'first meeting' with our Web site," Basso says. (By the way, they got the money from the Saudi investor.)

My conclusion? Both Robertson Marketing and Trendstat are successfully using the Web to make money, but without imitating's "get big fast" strategy.

Robertson Marketing's "Build Your Own Account Manager":

(Allow 30 seconds for the show to load.)

An example of Trendstat's performance cisclosures:

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It's easy for me to tell whether books were written during the Internet bubble or after the Nasdaq crash. The former are full of praise for dot-coms that later went bust, while the latter can't stop with the doom-and-gloom.

"Customers Rule!" is a new book that breaks this mold. While clearly written after the crash, it's unique in showing the things that successful e-businesses did to survive the bubble with their financial models intact.

The authors argue for a "blended" strategy: Web sites that are grounded in physical stores, for example. Describing what works at such sites as L.L. Bean, Sherwin-Williams, and Victoria's Secret, they say "it is the flexible, most agile dinosaur that wins."

The key question for a winning e-commerce site, according to their research, is "Does this e-tailer know how to perform essential marketing functions, such as buying and finance, as well or better than existing retailers?" Fortunately, the book provides answers to its own questions rather than merely leaving them for the reader to puzzle out.

"Customers Rule!: Why the E-Commerce Honeymoon is Over and Where Winning Businesses Go From Here"

by Roger Blackwell and Kristina Stephan (Crown)

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1. How the now bankrupt Webvan burned through $800 million

2. Dot-com bust creates big bucks for IT outsourcing

3. Successful e-business auctions off crime loot

4. E-tailers sell care packages for kids at camp

5. PC sales slumped, but CD burners doubled

6. Unified messaging may be a killer ASP (application service provider) solution

7. Pay-for-display search engines subject to spoofing

8. Google's new hit list doesn't yet match Yahoo's

9. Nonprofit Web site diverts U.S. tax rebate checks

10. New Eye Candy 4000 makes special Web effects easy

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Phillip Torrone's Web site,, is devoted to cool things developed with Macromedia Flash for the Pocket PC. A Flash-enabled color screen cell phone? A scooter that receives e-mail? You'll find it in here, and much more. news updates on the Pocket PC:

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E-BUSINESS SECRETS: Our mission is to bring you such useful and thought-provoking information about the Web that you actually look forward to reading your e-mail.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: E-Business Secrets is written by InfoWorld contributing editor Brian Livingston. Research Director is Ben Livingston (no relation). Brian has published 10 books, including:

Windows Me Secrets:

Windows 2000 Secrets:

Win a book free if you're the first to send a tip Brian prints. Send to



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