Internet vendor Rudy Socha is a flouter of norms. He doesn't promote his Web site. He discards customer data. And he gives away money. Lots of money. Yet in spite of--or more accurately, because of--those practices, Socha expects his Dolphin Whale & Shark Gift Store to sell more than $7 million worth of marine-themed jewelry, books, and gifts by year's end. His buyers will be people who click to Dolphin Whale from the sites of wildlife-oriented organizations--many of them nonprofits. The deal: The wildlife organizations get a copy of Dolphin Whale's site branded just for them plus 10% of each order placed through those sites. Dolphin Whale gets a steady stream of visitors with expendable income and an interest in all things flippered.
Dolphin Whale was conceived a year ago by Socha and Carolyn Darrow, single parents who live near each other in north central Ohio. Socha was intrigued by Amazon.com's affiliate model, which rewards Web sites that send customers to the on-line bookstore with a percentage of the orders those referrals generate. "They're tied in to 70,000 Web pages," says Socha. "We decided rather than having to deal with all the accounting and computer programs we'd need to track that many sites, we'd just go after the large nonprofits." He and Darrow are now pursuing for-profit organizations as well and are negotiating with AT& T and Discover Card.
Dolphin Whale went on-line in March as a stand-alone site with no promotion; in May the owners created their first affiliated site--for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The ASPCA's Web store is a slightly customized version of Dolphin Whale: the nonprofit's name has been added to the home page, and the book section has been removed. (The ASPCA can sell only books reviewed by its own staff.) Orders placed on the site travel over the Internet to Dolphin Whale's fulfillment house; the company automatically sets aside 10% of payments for the ASPCA. Customers can also make donations through the store.
Socha and Darrow are trying out a few other novel ideas, including trolling for suppliers on the site (they've signed up two so far) and holding drawings for $25,000 every time they sell $1 million worth of merchandise. Most Web businesses that offer prizes do so in order to collect customer data, but Dolphin Whale is accepting entries only through the mail and trashing them after each contest. "We don't want to maintain a database of someone else's clients," says Socha, referring to the nonprofits' memberships. "I personally feel uncomfortable with that, and I don't want it to become an issue down the road."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan