Best of the Small Business Web: Transplant Operation
Web address: www.relonetworks.com
Site launch cost: $5,000
Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows NT, O'Reilly WebSite Professional, Allaire ColdFusion, Inline iHTML, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Visual Basic Pro, Microsoft Access
Why we love it: Information-rich relocation site has helped this start-up close every one of its corporate sales
Category of success: Utility
It is a truth universally acknowledged that moving sucks; ergo, moving lots of people sucks exponentially. Brian Boettcher discovered that fact in the summer of 1998, when as a management trainee at mutual-fund company Franklin-Templeton he was asked to supervise the relocation of 200 employees from around the country as part of a grand expansion. Well, the expansion never happened, but in the process of preparing for it, Boettcher became a relocation expert, particularly adept at the urban survival skill of finding rentals.
In January, Boettcher launched ReloNetworks.com, a hand-holding, arrangement-making, bumpy-road-smoothing service for corporations reshuffling employees to the Bay Area. When movers-to-be fly into San Francisco, a ReloNetworks employee leaves her office in Mountain View, Calif., and meets them at the airport or hotel. She then spends a day squiring them around town, showing them pre-scouted rental properties, ushering them to appointments with school principals, and pointing out hospitals and supermarkets. After that initial tour, company representatives are reachable by phone to answer questions or otherwise help the transplants get situated.
In order to sell his services, Boettcher knew that he had to prove intimate knowledge of two things: the moving process and the Bay Area. Fortunately, he had amassed volumes of information on subjects like communities, attractions, and housing opportunities in the course of setting up Franklin-Templeton's vapor move and then ReloNetworks itself. And since ReloNetworks' services are so personalized, Boettcher determined it wouldn't cannibalize the business to give all that information away. "I figured that regardless of whether people used my services, I wanted to help them out," he says. It appears that he's helped a significant number: by July, ReloNetworks was drawing 8,000 visitors a month without advertising, aside from its sponsorship of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce's weekly fax report and a briefly run ad in TechWeek.
But Boettcher didn't want people to visit his site solely to do research; he wanted them to visit it to do things. So in February he partnered with a company called Homefair.com, and together they offer an assortment of interactive relocation tools. Visitors can consult a salary calculator to determine how much they'll need to earn in San Francisco to maintain their standard of living (no surprise: a lot). They can use another calculator to estimate what it will cost to ship their lives across country or call up a timeline for orchestrating their move. They can even compare their current hometown's cost of living, crime rate, and general demographics with those of other cities, read school reports, and find out what kind and how much additional insurance they'll need to buy.
The tools, which Homefair.com offers to other sites but customizes for ReloNetworks, cost Boettcher only $100 a month. While that's a minute investment for so much functionality, even more advantageous is ReloNetworks' arrangement with the company TravelNow, on whose site visitors can make car, air, and hotel reservations. In that case, Boettcher collects 50% of the profits from every ReloNetworks-referred reservation. At press time TravelNow was just preparing to roll out domestic air reservations. "That is when I expect to begin seeing significant revenue from our affiliation," says Boettcher.
And ReloNetworks' site, which is maintained by a full-time Webmaster, grows ever bushier with information. The company recently launched an on-line bookstore with selections on Bay Area culture, schools, adventures, and single life. A members section boasts an extensive guide to merchants, an assortment of coupons from local establishments, and ReloNetworks' most valuable offering in this housing-hungry market -- a list of rental properties, updated weekly.
Seven months after launch, ReloNetworks had 25 major clients, many of them wooed and won by the breadth of Bay Area expertise displayed on the site. "We printed out the entire Web site and included color copies in all our presentations," says Boettcher. "The site has played a significant part in every single one of our closings." Although the site has generated no direct revenues beyond a couple of hundred dollars from travel reservations, Boettcher is mulling moneymaking options, such as spinning off the apartment-listing service into its own company. "I still look at everything as a service," he says. "But I know that as the number of visitors goes up, I'm going to have to start looking at the site as revenue."