Best of the Small Business Web: Diamond in the Rough
BY Leigh Buchanan
Pinnacle Building Systems' on-the-cheap Web site has paid enormous dividends for this modular-home builder.
Company: Pinnacle Building Systems Corp. Revenues: $8.5 million Web address: www.modguys.com Site launch cost: $200 Current technology profile: Macromedia Dreamweaver, Adobe Photoshop, Emblaze WebCharger, Red Hat Linux Why we love it: An on-the-cheap Web site has paid enormous dividends for this modular-home builder Category of success: ROI
You know the sort of person -- not especially smart or attractive or kind -- whom capricious fate nonetheless rewards with good fortune at every turn? If Chris Graff's Web site were a person, that's the sort of person it would be.
Graff is president of Pinnacle Building Systems Corp., a manufacturer of customized modular homes and the entrepreneur's 16th start-up. Unlike those who testify eloquently that the future of business is spelled "W-E-B," Graff admits that "for us having a site was more of a 'why not' kind of thing." He recalls the day shortly after the Bristol, Ind., company's launch in 1997 when "a couple of young local guys knocked on the door and said, 'We'll put together a Web site for you for $200.' It was a minimal investment. We figured, what can it hurt?"
That first site was neither a thing of beauty nor a joy forever. "It was real chintzy," says Graff. It consisted of a couple of line drawings, a mission statement, and a smattering of bullet points about the company. The idea was to throw up any old thing and just let it hang there while the sales force scared up business the usual way -- pounding the pavement and calling builders. Graff figured he could improve the site later. His expectations were nonexistent, so disappointment was impossible.
But a funny thing happened while Graff wasn't working on the Web: the Web was working for him. People who wanted modular homes and commercial builders were constantly being tossed up on the site by search engines. Those people bought Pinnacle's products: $2 million worth in the first year. "We thought we might get a deal or two off the site, or that a builder might find us," says Graff. "What it's achieved is beyond anyone's wildest expectations."
Last year Graff wisely decided to lavish more love -- and money -- on the site. So he spent the princely sum of $1,500 on an upgrade, adding photos and product specs and a bit more information about the company. "It's not that creative. But it's complete and current and easy to get around," he says.
Surfers apparently agree with that faint praise. In 1998, Pinnacle's sales from Internet leads rose to $5 million. And that's with little promotion, aside from including the URL in the company's traditional media ads and printing it on the plastic wrap that protects a house en route to its final resting place. "We spend $50,000 a year to advertise on radio and in trade publications and newspapers," says Graff. "We spent about $1,000 on the Web site, and it contributes many times more dollars to the top line."
Graff says Pinnacle's Web success has been more than a pleasant surprise: it's been salvation. "We're two and a half years into this, and we're within a few percentage points of being right where we projected we'd be saleswise," he says. "Our traditional methods of selling turned out to be far less effective than we had anticipated, so the Web made up for that shortfall. And if we hadn't made up for that shortfall, we would probably not have survived the start-up phase."
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan