When you build your Web site (and you will), here's what you'll find out

The Internet is a daunting concept for nondigerati like me. From afar, it appears to be a comprehensive information and communication conduit that knows no borders and exemplifies new technical capabilities. The reality is that it is like a rebellious adolescent: it has incredible power and promise, but it needs discipline that doesn't crush its spirit. When I recently set up a World Wide Web page for my company, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the human quality beneath the hype.

Although technologically sophisticated, I was not an Internet junkie. I never surfed the Net, and I was more familiar with Netscape's stock price than with its Navigator product. A former systems consultant, I started my company, M2, eight years ago. M2 is a broker of independent consultants; we have a network of 4,000 consultants experienced in marketing, finance, human resources, operations, and information systems. We operate with a very advanced database, but I couldn't see our clients voyaging into cyberspace to choose an interim chief financial officer or a temporary sales executive to set up in China. However, because part of the value we add is how quickly we can find the right consultant, we eventually concluded that on-line communications with our consulting network could enhance our service. So we began to develop a Web site where two-thirds of the material would be private and meant exclusively for the independent consultants we work with.

I figured that putting our Web page together would be simple, given my background. I had previously worked for a large consulting firm, where I'd developed new systems and recommended fixes for old ones. I quickly learned that the rules of the Internet were not those of the systems world I once knew. Large-scale systems development is a mature discipline that epitomizes structure, organization, and planning. By contrast, Internet site development thrives on creativity, spontaneity, and interactivity. Screen design is on-line, not on paper. Everything is done with a teenager's urgency.

That young, unbridled outlook is conspicuous among the businesses that deliver services in this new world, as we came to discover when we sent out a request for proposal (RFP) to several site-development companies. Many of the companies working on the Web today are staffed by recent college graduates who surfed the Net in school. In some cases, those developers may even be high school students; my neighbor can't persuade her 17-year-old to go to college, because he's making so much money ($17 an hour) building Web pages. These young programmers have a skill in great demand, and they don't know enough to care what it is the customer wants. Other companies are consortiums of moonlighters who work at another company by day and build Web pages by night. Ironically, one company touted that setup as a strategic advantage, saying, "Our folks must be good -- look where they have their day jobs!" But the company didn't have a good answer for what happens if the site crashes during the day. It didn't even have the business sense to anticipate the question.

Our RFP process imposed more structure on site development than the Internet service providers were used to. Confronted with the privacy aspect of our site, several opted not to bid. One had a moral objection to password protection, telling us that barriers in cyberspace were an insult to the Web. Other bidders were uncomfortable with the RFP concept: discussing how they would address our various requirements was "too much trouble." Still others followed the competitive-pricing approach of "just tell us what the lowest bid is, and we'll do it for that."

One of my favorite memories is of the bidder who asked which marketing material I wanted to review after it was rekeyed into the developer's format for the Web. He was rather stunned when I answered, "Everything." Needless to say, the vendor seemed to have no idea that there was a whole industry associated with corporate identity and that a Web presence is no less than a company's cyberspace gestalt -- every line, shadow, icon, and color contributing to the overall company image.

As the project progressed we tried to channel the exuberance of the new medium in ways that would best support our business. Every feature and function we had articulated as a requirement could be interconnected in different directions. The new array of virtually immediate choices increased the potential to go off track. We, as the client, had to keep the project focused, even as all the nuances came to light. We were the "mom," making sure that our teenager got all his work done on time.

On the whole, the process has resulted in a very good product: m2net.com. It also demystified the new digital world for me. To have a presence on the Web, I don't need to understand all its intricacies. The largest technology companies may have a different perspective, but to me the Internet is a cottage industry with many young, often inexperienced but enormously talented entrepreneurs serving companies like mine. In truth, our business was probably more challenging for our vendor to understand than his tasks were for us to understand.

I learned another thing, too. Again, given the array of choices, our site ended up much richer than we had originally envisioned. As a result, it took longer, cost more, and will be more expensive to maintain. And already we have whole new functions that we can't wait to port to cyberspace. So much for our Web budget. Some things never change.

Marion McGovern is CEO of M2 Inc., a consultant-brokerage company in San Francisco.

Published on: May 1, 1996