Best of the Small Business Web: The Heat Is Online
Company: Advanced Radiant Technology LLC
Web address: www.advancedradiant.com
Site launch cost: $18,000
Current technology profile: Microsoft Windows NT, Live Picture PhotoVista, Macromedia Flash
Why we love it: A heating guru wins local customers and far-flung admirers by waxing eloquent on his art and craft
Categories of success: ROI & Local Site
Paul Pollets understands the power of appearing authoritative. His friend Richard Trethewey commands enormous authority as the heating and plumbing expert on the popular PBS series This Old House. When Trethewey discusses radiant heating on the show, as he does frequently, Pollets gets the chance to parade his own expertise; viewers who take to the Web seeking more information about these state-of-the-art systems often run across his company, Advanced Radiant Technology.
In radiant-heating systems, water circulating under the floor or behind wall panels radiates warmth into a room, heating it more evenly than traditional temperature-control systems. While radiant heat was no stranger to the homeowners of ancient Rome, it's still something of a head scratcher in the United States, where only 2% of the population use it. Customer education, therefore, is paramount, and here is where Advanced Radiant's unusually lucid site succeeds brilliantly: visitors come away understanding what radiant heating is, why they would want it, and why they should buy it from Pollets. That's no mean feat when you consider that the average Web site is written so abysmally that visitors wonder whether they need a different browser to read it in English.
"I know how to write," says Pollets, a pipe fitter by trade and an environmental designer by education. "And I have the advantage of working with a partner who is extremely well-versed in advertising and marketing. We locked ourselves in a house for two weeks, 60 hours a week, and we wrote that Web site."
That marathon session occurred in November 1997 while Pollets was launching his company. Having settled in Seattle, where software millionaires grow thick as Douglas firs, the CEO had assumed the Web would be critical to his business from day one. That was fine with Pollets, especially given the alternatives. "Traditionally, the yellow pages have had an iron grip on plumbing and heating contractors," Pollets says. "They charge you outrageous prices, and all you have to show for it is that you own a portion of a page and maybe get a few phone calls." Pollets still spends $15,000 a year on yellow pages ads, which net him about 40% of his business. By contrast, the Web site, which cost him $18,000 -- about a third of which is defrayed by suppliers -- brings in about 50%. (The other 10% comes from word of mouth.) "There's no doubt in my mind that the Internet is the single best way to get the message out about this company," says Pollets.
But Advanced Radiant's site isn't just winning customers; it's also deepening relationships with the company's suppliers, who typically have been slow boats to the Web. Hoping to raise his suppliers' profiles while defraying his own costs, Pollets has offered to build pages on his own site pumping manufacturers' products. "Initially, the manufacturers were hesitant; they were only familiar with yellow pages ads, radio, TV, and print," he says. "But with the success of the company and the traffic on the site, [boiler manufacturer] Viessmann stepped up to the plate and was willing to help pay co-op costs for an expanded Viessmann section." Now Pollets expects to wring even more income from those pages by letting noncompeting heating contractors use them on their own sites for a fee.
In the end, Pollets says that the best Web marketers will be those with the highest-quality products and the eloquence and skill to tell their stories well. "I have to use the Web site to beat on my chest and do it graciously and diplomatically," he says. "I can't be haughty. I can't be arrogant, because surely I'm the most expensive. The idea is to show off your workmanship, show off your craftsmanship, so that people come away saying, 'Of course I'll pay more. Look what I get!"