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Profiled Web Site: Garden Escape

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Garden.com home pageTaking its cue from a certain online bookstore, Garden Escape (www.garden.com), an online gardening store and resource, boasts that it's the "Web's largest horticulture database." The site sells directly to consumers and has relationships with more than 35 suppliers, selling more than 10,000 products online. Garden Escape also publishes a monthly online magazine, hosts gardening-related chats, and helps people design gardens with a drag-and-drop planning grid. With 150,000 to 175,000 registered visitors, who's going to argue with the company's claim?

But what makes this Web-based business really unusual is the degree of customization and user interactivity. You can find out what will grow where you live by simply entering your zip code -- Garden Escape will even tell you when to plant it. And beyond (more specifically, behind) the details of gardening, you'll find some well-thought-out and unique Web technology designed to make each user's visit efficient and personally tailored. The site uses back-end coding that prevents browsers from caching pages -- which means that each user gets a customized site as they surf through it -- and Java that allows customers to plan a virtual garden and then buy exactly what they need to make it real.

Online since the first day of spring in 1996, Garden Escape is funded with $8 million in venture capital and based in Austin, Texas, with offices in Des Moines, Iowa, and Redwood City, Calif. The business employs about 30 people, including Andy Martin, who developed the Web site and now heads up the group of developers who maintain it. Martin talked to Inc. Online about why gardeners are the perfect online customer.


Why a garden Web site?

The interesting thing about the garden industry is there isn't any single company that has more than 1% of the industry. It's a $50 billion to $70 billion concern in America, and there are just no clear winners. That's one of the reasons we chose gardening in the first place. We could have done books or CDs like everyone else.

Garden.com's Garden Planner
Garden Escape's drag-and-drop Garden Planner lets you map out a garden and then buy everything you need to re-create it at home.

Did you research the idea?

Well, I didn't, but Lisa Sharples and Cliff Sharples did. It was Lisa's original idea, and the three founders are Lisa, Cliff, and Jamie O'Neil. They all came from Trilogy Development Group, [ a software firm] , and formed the company in September of 1995.

They had spent about a year looking at various industries before they decided that gardening was it. It was certainly one of the hardest, but also the one with the biggest potential upside. Plants are not a commodity product; when you go down into plants, you have zones, seasons, shipping restrictions -- things you don't normally have to think about with commodity products.

How many visitors do you get?

At the moment we get between 6,000 and 8,000 a day. We're able to keep close track of the numbers because we don't allow browsers to cache any of our pages. Your mainstream software is not accurately tracking visitors to sites because of caching. It's really important for us to know how many users we've got and from where. We also analyze our registration data: we know from that, for instance, that 27% of our users come from California.

Do you have advertisers on your pages?

We have some. Very few at the moment. For the longest time, we didn't want banner ads, and we're still playing with that. Our model of making money is selling product, not selling advertising. But we have a lot of visitors now and we don't want to turn away too much cash. It's hard because I'm not sure if the ads that are running are quite what we want. The advertisers want to generate their own ads and we can't even see them until they're on our site. Most of the advertising on the site now is for us. Summer is the low point in gardening, so we had more advertisers on the site then.

Let's talk about the Web site itself. Did you build everything yourself?

I built the back end, the front end, the side end, everything. And I did that probably in about three months, from December 1995 until our launch in March 1996. We had a lot of problems. The initial goal was not to build everything ourselves, but we realized that we couldn't get what we wanted in a shrink-wrapped package. We got some graphics done from various Web companies, but all the real work was done by hand by me.

Garden.com
Garden Escape has more than 10,000 products for sale online.

Has it gotten any easier to maintain?

I don't think it's gotten easier since we moved forward. It's gotten more complicated. We've been a company for two years and we've been open for about 18 months. The first six months were spent on the back end, just getting the basic Web site up. The next six months we spent a lot more time making the Web site a lot prettier, a lot nicer, a lot more usable. The last six months we've spent building up the suppliers. We started off with 10 suppliers, and now we've got 35. We're getting back into a mode where we're going to start addressing the Web site a lot more. We change the content on the site all the time, but there are times when we focus more on the technology and the back end, too.

Why is it important that the pages aren't cached at your site?

We purposely make all the links unique so you never cache any of the pages; there are no static HTML pages on our site, and every single page is generated on the fly. The reason is this: whenever you click on one of the pages, you could be changing the state of where you are or what's in your shopping cart. We need to make sure you get a fresh page each time.

How is the site likely to develop in the future?

My current vision, which I'm hoping to roll out in the next three to six months, is that you feel that the site is yours. Everything about the site was built around you, your usage of the system, the sort of things that you search for, the sort of things that you buy, it all constantly refines itself based on what you like and what you don't like. It almost starts as nothing and as you use the system more it grows around you. The banners change, the products and the departments that you look at, and if you never look at garden accessories, you'll never even see them. It doesn't bother your eyes. Our site is so busy, there's so much stuff on there. I think we've done a pretty good job with the navigation, but there is a lot of stuff. That is not the best thing to help sell goods because you've got to focus and we're working more on that. Now it's just a matter of implementing that final phase because we have all the back-end support, which is just waiting to have these hooks put in. I think it's kind of cool.

We're constantly trying to improve performance. Everything basically is written in C, as opposed to most sites, which are written in Perl. C is much, much faster. I come from the old school where performance is an issue. We're trying to do so much that every little second counts. When you have hundreds or thousands of people at your Web site at one stage, that's what can bring it down.

Garden.com's Garden Planner
This "Large Elephant Squirting Water Topiary" is just one of the topiaries available from Garden.com.

Has the company done much advertising or marketing?

The marketing budget is by far the largest budget for each of the departments. We advertise in traditional gardening magazines, and I think we've spend a fair amount of time on PR. One of the things about gardening is that it's very much a grassroots industry. We go and do presentations at garden clubs and that sort of thing. We don't have a massive budget for advertising but we do what we can.

Is Garden Escape profitable?

I can't actually give you specific numbers. We make money through margin on all the plants we sell; we have a margin deal with all the suppliers. We're doing as well as can be expected. We're still in business.

There's no doubt that people are going to be buying things in droves over the Internet in the next 10 years. The question is when. Our business keeps getting better. Making money is pretty hard to do when you've got to build yourself up. We've raised, so far, more than $8 million in venture capital. There's been a lot of bad press about buying on the Web, and it's hard to break people's conception of that.

The numbers are growing every month in a very positive way. We're not making a profit, but I don't know anyone who is. There's been a lot of companies that have just failed.

How about you personally? Are you still, for instance, doing all the coding?

I have assistants now. I hired my first developer after about four or five months. And now there are three developers. I'm trying to move into more of a technology visionary mode as opposed to doing all the coding.

I don't ever want more than three developers if I can help it. So what I tried to do from day one is to let everyone else in the company change the Web site, as opposed to going through development. This is a definite philosophy of mine and it can be risky because anyone in your company could do anything. You can change the home page and you need to know zero HTML. If you want to change an image, you just click on it.

Michelle Keyo was associate producer of Inc. Online when this article was published.




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