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This year's Inc. 500 are quite comfortable with the hottest information technology. Check out what their Web sites do for them

Hardly had little Sonnet Software (#461; $1.7 million in sales in 1994) opened for global business on the Internet's fast-emerging World Wide Web last June, than the company's very first home page was "hit" with an order from a university in England. It was for a few thousand dollars -- far less than Sonnet's average order -- but CEO and founder James C. Rautio believes the unsolicited purchase promises thousands more dollars. "Universities are key customers for us," Rautio explains. "When students who have used our software graduate, they influence the companies they go to work for to buy the program. So selling to this market pays off handsomely." Yet Sonnet doesn't make sales calls on students around the world. Why not? "Because a home page on the Web is such an inexpensive way to do it." (Sonnet's home-page service, which includes Internet access and electronic mail, costs the company just $175 a month.)

Commercial presence on the Web is new (AT&T, for example, debuted there only last October), yet 22% of the companies on this year's Inc. 500 list already boast their own home page -- the text-and-graphics "cover sheet" that overlies screens full of corporate promotion and information.

Not all home pages belong to high-tech companies that have an edge in handling Web-site development, like Sonnet. Just as typical are everyday merchants like Select Comfort (#30; more than $29 million in sales in 1994), a maker of air mattresses. Select Comfort uses its home page, also launched in June, to advertise and sell mattresses to what it sees as a market of 20 million Internet surfers.

For that market, Select Comfort has dedicated a function on its home page to questions and answers, an interaction between company and customers that has produced unexpected leads. "There's no doubt," observes Select Comfort's communications specialist Leslie Quigley, "that you attract a different kind of consumer on the Web than you do on the phone." Another effect: customers use the company's page to "talk" with other customers about sleeping on air. Even when those "conversations" turn critical of a Select Comfort product, the company doesn't butt in. But it has learned a lot about electronic shoppers. Soon, promises Quigley, those shoppers will be able to download directly from the home page a video that demonstrates the benefits of Select Comfort's mattresses.

Before Sports Endeavors (#424; 1994 sales of almost $23 million; see "The Fan Versus the Businessman," [Article link]) set up a home page displaying color photos, descriptions of the soccer gear it sells, and an electronic order form, the company figured it would take three weeks to get its printed catalog to a customer in Japan by mail. "It boggles my mind," marvels Alex Greene, director of international operations for Sports Endeavors, "that now, in less than three minutes that same customer is browsing through our catalog and buying merchandise electronically. We know there are soccer fans all over the world, but before the Web, how could we find buyers in Qatar?"

"We're definitely adding a base of customers," confirms Quigley, who, like Greene, intends to add many more. Currently, Select Comfort books less than 1% of its sales outside the United States. "But what's neat about the Web is that it brings the world together in an efficient way. We've already had lots of calls from countries overseas." When Select Comfort finishes analyzing them, she predicts, "we'll grow as quickly there as we have here."

And what about businesses that don't intend to expand globally? According to Quigley, there's still a cachet to a home page. "A company really looks cutting edge," she notes, "with an address on the Web."