Best of the Small Business Web: Seed Money
Company: Prairie Frontier
Web address: www.prairiefrontier.com
Site launch cost: $400
Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows 98 , Allaire HomeSite, Jasc Paint Shop Pro, GlobalSCAPE, CuteFTP, Qualcomm Eudora Pro, Prime-Web Ultimate Bulletin Board, AutoCart, Molly Penguin Software MapThis, Sierra On-line Paint Artist
Why we love it: Starting with nothing, this wildflower entrepreneur grew an E-commerce site that has everything
Category of success: Design
There's a certain Lake wobegon-ish quality to seed company Prairie Frontier. Maybe it's owner Deb Edlhuber's Wisconsin accent. Maybe it's the no-nonsense way she describes the science of growing wildflowers from her company's products ("You drop 'em on the ground and stamp on 'em"). Or maybe it's the Waukesha, Wis., company itself, which has the same nostalgia-invoking simplicity as Bertha's Kitty Boutique and the other homespun enterprises that populate Garrison Keillor's nowhere-and-never Minnesota town.
What distinguishes Edlhuber from the fictional Wobegoners is that she is doing business on the Internet. But unlike tiny companies that use the Web to cloak their diminutive size, Prairie Frontier's site accentuates the personal nature of the business. It does so most effectively in the company's birth history: Edlhuber's eloquent account of the trauma she endured when a tornado destroyed the woods on her family's farm, followed by her delight when a carpet of wildflowers -- previously dormant due to lack of sunlight -- sprang up and covered the devastation. Eager to identify the newcomers, Edlhuber and her husband began photographing the plants in all their bewildering variety: the ice blue starburst of the bottle gentian, the butterfly-baiting clusters of swamp milkweed, the delicate teardrops of the cuckoo flower. Soon boxes of photographs crowded every surface of their home.
The couple also began propagating seeds, and by 1995 Edlhuber was selling them to garden centers in southeastern Wisconsin. "The kids were all in school," says the mother of four. "It was meant to be just a little part-time thing." But as a wholesaler she didn't have much contact with the public, and as an enthusiast she had boatloads of information to share. So in 1996, Edlhuber bought her first-ever PC, signed up with America Online, and began a course of self-instruction on all things Web-related. "I was on-line for about six months, just reading, reading, reading," she says.
In 1997 she splurged on a scanner and, using her newly acquired technical expertise and a collection of scripts found on-line, she built www.prairiefrontier.com. "I had no training in this stuff: wildflowers or computers or any of it," says Edlhuber, the amazement still evident in her voice. "We put our Web address on our packaging and our displays. People would buy the seeds at garden centers and see the URL and go to the site to get information."
She also signed up with LinkExchange, a tool for small and midsize companies that want to swap banner ads, and that turned the rivulet of visitors into a larger torrent. "I was shocked because I didn't realize I could reach so many people," says Edlhuber, who didn't need to numerically track individual visitors to know her site had succeeded. "We had never advertised before, and I had no idea it would snowball like that."
The big draw, of course, was the photos, which Edlhuber patiently posted one by one. Each photograph is like a small, sweet breeze and is accompanied by the plant's vitals: what it is called, how tall it grows, how much sunlight it needs, what wildlife it attracts. Site visitors saw and, not surprisingly, they coveted. Soon Edlhuber found herself selling direct to consumers, with average orders ranging from $50 to $100. "When I went on the Web, I had no shopping cart," she says. "But I had people E-mailing me like crazy, saying, 'I want to buy this, I want to buy that.' Demand forced me to go retail."
As Prairie Frontier grew from a diversion into a full-time business, Edlhuber continued to scan the Web for ideas, and new features sprouted on her site like buttercups. Since the site's launch she's added games, wildflower-themed puzzles, and a slide show on how to create a prairie. (The company sells prairie grass as well as flower seeds.) Personal home pages for visitors blossomed briefly but wilted just as quickly. More popular have been discussion forums, some devoted to gardening issues (Is it too late in the year to plant spiderwort?), the rest ranging from crafts and cooking to computer programs. "They just go in there and talk about anything," says Edlhuber. "Sometimes it's plants and sometimes it's 'How's your nephew?"