Company: ArtSource
Revenues: $3 million
Web address: www.artsourceonline.com
Site launch cost: $53,000
Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows NT, Microsoft VisualBasic, Red Hat Linux, Oracle8i (Linux version)
Why we love it: Build-your-own art galleries help corporate customers make smart decisions
Categories of success: Utility & Design

Maggie Smith's customers may not know much about art. Sometimes they don't even know what they like. So when those customers are choosing 150 paintings for a nursing home or 50 art posters for a corporation's headquarters, they want their colleagues' opinions.

"There are almost always multiple decision makers, whether it's a designer showing choices to the end client, members of an art committee consulting with one another, or branch managers who need corporate approval," says Smith. "The ability to show each other choices is essential."

But instead of dog-earring the pages of a catalog and routing it through the office as they once did, ArtSource's clients now direct coworkers and bosses to personalized on-line galleries. Clients create the galleries themselves by filling in on-line forms with their company information. Once a gallery exists, customers hang its virtual walls with works they may want to buy by clicking on images, in the way that consumers on retail sites place items in a shopping cart.

The galleries stay on-line as long as customers want, so a decorator designing a company's new Pittsburgh office can look back and see what's hanging in the Raleigh headquarters. When customers can't decide which of two seascapes will look best against a royal blue color scheme or need help choosing a frame, they can E-mail ArtSource. One of the New Berlin, Wis., company's seven in-house consultants -- all with backgrounds in fine art or interior design -- will log on to that customer's gallery and then E-mail back advice.

Many small-business Web sites evolve gradually as company owners gingerly test the digital waters. But artsourceonline.com, which launched in July, emerged full-grown like Minerva from Jupiter's forehead. "For the past year or so I've been having my reps talk to customers and ask them 'Are you on the Web?" says Smith, who entered the corporate art market in 1989. As more and more of those customers replied in the affirmative, Smith decided it was time.

For years Smith and her staff had relied on the kludgey mechanism of taking orders by mail and phone. Once they received a request ("I'm looking for pictures of fire trucks for a pediatrician's office"), they'd sort through baskets full of playing-card-size images, reproduce a selection on a high-end color copier, and send them to customers by Priority Mail. Now Smith has migrated a streamlined version of that procedure to the Web. ArtSource customers plug in their own criteria (such as color, style, subject, size, and media) and the site returns thumbnail images of all the matches in ArtSource's inventory. Clicking on the thumbnails brings up larger renditions as well as information about the various pieces. If customers like what they see, they store the works in their galleries and invite colleagues to come in and play critic.