Best of the Small Business Web: Mr. Blandings Builds His Screen House
Company: Lakeside Development Co.
Revenues: $15 million
Web address: www.lakesidedevelopment.com
Site launch cost: $15,000
Current technology profile: Red Hat Linux, Apache HTTP Server, T.c.X. MySQL, Macromedia Fireworks, Macromedia Dreamweaver
Why we love it: Gorgeous site lets new home buyers make big choices
Categories of success: Design & Utility
Tom Zabjek has no illusions about what sells the buildings his company designs. "We've spent a lot of money on photography," says the president of Lakeside Development Co., an architectural and construction-management firm founded in 1986. And indeed, Lakeside's Web site is awash with graphic testimonials to the company's expertise, their colors as saturated and composition as artful as photos in the glossiest shelter magazines. So dramatic are the Maxfield Parrish-like blues and golds of the 1997 "Gable View" project, for example, that you'll wish it was offered as a screen saver.
When the site was launched, in 1996, good looks were all it needed. Lakeside, in Mequon, Wis., had just built a model home at the behest of Midwest Living magazine, and the principals wanted to wring maximum advantage from the attendant publicity by linking a page to the magazine's heavily trafficked site. But as the Web itself became increasingly functional, Zabjek realized that his site could be more than just a beautiful stallion -- it could also be a workhorse.
The load Zabjek hoped the Web would bear was client communication. Lakeside's customers are mostly affluent frequent-flier types, people who want to be part of the gestation of their new homes but don't have time to hang around construction sites or trot from showroom to showroom picking out rugs and faucets. The CEO's plan was to hand those clients virtual hardhats by moving every aspect of project planning to the Web site and inviting them to participate there. So early this year Lakeside began creating password-protected areas for select buildings-to-be and populating those areas with preliminary floor plans, detailed specifications on everything from landscaping to shower doors, and links to the architect's preferred vendors. "The customer is involved in everything: choice of brick, stone, wall texture, carpeting, light fixtures," says Zabjek. "Let's say it's time to choose the kitchen sink. Our customer would log on and follow a link to the Kohler site, pick the sink they want, and then paste the model number into the spec for the kitchen. And we'd take it from there."
There's also a message board, through which clients, architects, and project managers negotiate the endless details involved in building luxury homes. (Lakeside also does commercial projects.) And since looking at blueprints isn't nearly as satisfying as watching the brick-by-brick birth process, employees post digital photos of the customer's construction site as necessary. Those photos present both overviews of the work and selected details. "If we had a question about how to finish out the fireplace, we could post a picture for the client and E-mail him a message asking what he wants to do," says Zabjek.
In the works are 24-hour live webcasts from construction sites, which Zabjek expects will both improve client oversight and save his own people some road wear. "Someone here might be waiting for a delivery of brick at a location that's an hour away. With the site, they can just sit at their desk and look to see if it's there," says Zabjek. "Although I suppose it could also work against us. A client might log on and see nobody at his site and say, 'What are you people doing?"
Lakeside's Web site doesn't only serve outsiders. An internal-use section houses the company directory, a message center where staff members share thoughts on everything from office procedures to the annual outing, and an employee handbook that flashes the face of a different Lakesider at each access. "That last feature is very neat," says Zabjek. "When we hire someone new, they can use it to learn what everybody looks like."