Remember the "level playing field" theory of the Web? How in cyberspace size didn't matter because even the most picayune start-up could conceal its lack of heft by developing a sleek Web site? Well, big, it seems, is no longer so beautiful. Now that vast infusions of capital are blowing up many dot-coms to unimaginable proportions, some newcomers to the scene are trying to distinguish themselves by taking the opposite approach: good things, they're announcing, come in small packages.
Exhibit A: DrsFosterSmith.com, a pet-product E-tailer based in Rhinelander, Wis. The site's name implies that it's a specialty store on the Web. And to be fair, two true-blue veterinarians did start the business 17 years ago. But this is no modest enterprise -- it's an online superstore run by an $80-million catalog company. The good doctors' strategy is to marry the best aspects of being big (thousands of products; a 24-hour call center; quick, cheap shipping) with the homegrown benefits of being small (customer intimacy, superior service). And the site assures customers that cofounders Race Foster and Marty Smith, along with three other vets, "personally select or approve every product."
According to Foster, the positioning provides the company with an edge over large, venture-backed competitors like Pets.com and Petopia.com. "We deliberately wanted to be real people -- we felt that was our marketing advantage," he says.
Exhibit B: HomeTownStores.com, based in Quincy, Mass. Bob Curry, who owns two Ace Hardware franchises, founded the company with his son and another young entrepreneur. Though he pals around with Web scions like Garage.com founder Guy Kawasaki, Curry has taken pains to brand his business as having the gestalt of a corner store.
Yet no corner store shares Curry's ambitions. His site, which started out selling tools and hardware, now offers 58,000 products, ranging from blankets to chocolates, and has many of the amenities of huge Web sites. Yet its folksy motto is "We run a darn good store, and we're glad you're here." "In my hardware stores we give away free popcorn," says Curry. "We can't do that on the Web, but we can bring that philosophy here." To that end, Curry has invested thousands of dollars in technology that allows virtual salesclerks to greet browsing customers. "I don't want this to seem like a megamall but like a bunch of village stores," he says.
Why the mania to miniaturize? "If a business shows a proclivity to have a relationship, people will feel magnetized to it," says Jay Conrad Levinson, author of the Guerrilla Marketing books. "There are smart ways to warm up what is otherwise a cold, impersonal relationship."
MIKE HOFMAN was previously editor of Inc.com and a deputy editor at Inc. magazine, which he joined in 1996. The site was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Digital Media in 2010, and was named the best business website by Folio Magazine. In 2006, Hofman was part of a team of writers nominated for a Webby Award for best business blog. He lives in New York City. @mikehofman