User's Guide

There's something about hardware stores that brings on a bout of nostalgia. Who doesn't recall roaming the aisles of a downtown shop -- hammers, screwdrivers, jar openers, and clay pots placed randomly on dusty shelves? Hardware-store owners always knew how to fix the dripping faucet and repair the broken window. One could go there for advice and come away comforted that the kitchen wouldn't, after all, wash away in a flood and the window would once again keep out the elements.

But that was years ago, when people spent more time browsing and the veteran do-it-yourselfers who worked in hardware stores could dispense advice in a leisurely fashion. Not so today. Sadly, both time and the human touch are in short supply -- realities that have particular meaning for entrepreneur Peter Hunt. In fact, at one time Hunt almost abandoned his investment-banking career to buy a hardware store in a rural New England town. Instead, a few years later, he and business partner Rich Takata founded, an online hardware store that attempts to bring personal service to anyone who clicks on its virtual "front door."

The push to get up and running, of course, was anything but leisurely. In their effort to launch as quickly as possible, Hunt and Takata needed their Web developer, Xuma, to build a Web site in no time flat. Xuma's engineers turned themselves inside out to create a site that would provide animated how-to information, world-class customer service, and a ton of products -- 37,000 at last count. Senior writer Anne Stuart, who spent several days at, says, "My stomach hurt when I was out there. They were enthusiastic, but I could really feel the pressure and stress they were all under. There was absolutely no room for lateness."

The need for personal service is a theme that runs throughout this issue. It's what Hunt was searching for when he went online looking for building supplies and advice, came up empty-handed, and dreamed up his new venture. Ironically enough, it's what caused Bluemercury Inc. CEO Marla Malcolm (" Beauty and the Best") to spurn online computer stores when she purchased technology for her new beauty-products business. And it's what sent architect Tony Fallon (" A Soloist's Blueprint") to friends, consultants, and local computer retailers rather than to the wealth of technology Web sites when he planned to buy new gear for his office in the woods. (Turnabout, it seems, is fair play: if you're demanding stellar customer service, you ought to be equally prepared to be a great customer. Writer Lauren Paul was taken with the fact that a grateful Fallon once paid a computer salesman $100, unsolicited, just for giving him advice.)

So consider what follows our personal service to you: our CEO's Start-up Toolkit. We sent a team of writers and researchers out into the field to answer the questions: "If you were going to start a new business tomorrow, how would you outfit it?" and, "Given the thousands of computer and software products on the market (and all the overwhelming hype), how would you make your choices?" Writers Stuart and Paul dissected the purchasing decisions of Bluemercury's Malcolm and soloist Fallon, both savvy, budget-minded entrepreneurs. And our reporting team examined other start-up essentials as well.

The lesson seems obvious: so far, nothing in cyberspace beats good old-fashioned advice from a knowledgeable, considerate human being. So we ask you to do this: Tell us how our toolkit helps you. And send us your stories about what you needed when you started your company, and what you'd do differently if you did it all over again.

Just in case we decide to do this again next year. -- Elaine Appleton, Editor

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