Amid Customer Complaints, an Inc. 500 Company Closes
BY Eric Markowitz
A web-design company that ranked No. 22 on the Inc. 500 just four years ago shut its doors this week, leaving customers wondering why.
A controversial web-design company that served scores of small businesses and left many unhappy customers in its wake has closed its doors.
Employees from HIT Web Design, a full-service web design and web hosting company in Provo, Utah, were seen carrying boxes out of the company's headquarters on Tuesday, the Deseret Newsreported. Founded as Heritage Web Solutions in 1999, the company hit No. 22 on the Inc. 5000 in 2007, and appeared on the list again in 2008 in 2009.
The company's likely liquidation comes after a year of controversy. HIT Web Design has been the subject of more than 972 complaints on Utah's Better Business Bureau (BBB). The allegations have ranged from employees claiming they are owed back pay to customers who say work was never completed. (Over the years, the company has used a variety of DBAs or "Doing Business As" names, including Heritage Web Design, The Heritage Group LLC, Zipper Web, Heritage Web Solutions, Yellow Page Partners, Chamber Partners, and Hit Web Design.)
Last May, a reporter at Utah's local NBC news affiliate, KSL, reported on the business practices of HIT. The station's findings were disquieting. Jane Driggs, the president of Utah's BBB told KSL that consumers in "every state but Maine and South Dakota [has filed complaints]" against the company.
Mark Strong, the company's co-founder, told KSL that customers simply had "buyer's remorse" after retaining his company to design a website. "We're taking a thought, an idea, in somebody's head and trying to transfer that into the designer's head and come up with a product that hits a home run…and we're not always successful," he said in an interview with the station.
To be sure, Web design can be a tricky business. Like any consulting-based industry, fee structures and contractual agreements between vendor and client vary widely. Expectations can easily become misaligned, and relationships can sour quickly.
It is unclear whether this history of customer-service problems contributed to HIT's apparent failure. Beginning on Tuesday, HIT's main phone line was disabled; an operator now answers the phone with the following recorded message: "Thank you for calling. Our current hosting customers accounts are being serviced by Fibernet. They're a reputable hosting company that's been around since 1994. Please contact them for more information."
According to officials at Fibernet, which is based in Orem, Utah, HIT was a reseller of Fibernet's web hosting service. In other words, when a customer paid HIT to design a site for them, HIT then used Fibernet as its web host. Lee Livingston, the CFO of Fibernet, said in a phone interview that HIT was cooperating with Fibernet in transferring account information, but noted the frustrations of many of HIT's current customers. "I've talked to former employees, their customers, so it's clear to me why the customers are upset," he says. "We're trying to remain neutral here. We're just trying to make lemonade out of lemons." Livingston notes that Fibernet had not purchased HIT, and was unsure of HIT's future.
A few years ago, HIT Web Design was the feature of Economic Report with Greg Gumbel. The video, posted here, provides a rosy image of the web-design company. The only problem, however, was that in 2009, it was revealed that Economic Report was hardly a source of actual news; the program charged its subjects between $20,000 and $30,000 for being filmed. The New York Postcalled it an "Infomercial Scam." Unabashed, HIT Web Design still posts the video on its homepage.
In a sign of how competitive and cut-throat the business is, rival web design and web hosting companies swiftly moved to capitalize on HIT's apparent demise by targeting ads on Google tied to the search term HIT Web Design. One ad, by RiaEnjolie, a web design firm based in Plainsboro, New Jersey, reads "Burned by Hit Web Design? We can help, open Saturday & Sunday Get 25% off plus 3 mos free hosting." Clicking on that link takes you to dedicated landing page where digital coupon appears saying "Abandoned Hit Web Design customers can turn your online nightmare around. Contact us today to get the help you need at a special discount."
No bankruptcy claims have been filed for HIT Web Design according to the District of Utah Bankruptcy Court. Sonny Olsen, HIT Web Design's lawyer, told the Deseret News that the company will be making a statement in the next few days. Olsen could not be reached for a statement at press time.