Company: PostNet International Franchise Corp.
Web address: www.postnet.net
Why it won: Its sophisticated extranet helps franchisees help themselves.
Company revenues: $5 million (excluding franchise revenues)
Site-launch cost: $10,000
Judge's view: "If you can do something constructive at a site that enables you to see your results quickly with lots of high customer-service touch, you've got a winner." --Randy Hinrichs
"Help! How can we promote our color-copying service?" "What are the rules and regulations for shipping wine?" "Does anyone offer cell/pager service?" "Do you provide health insurance for employees?"
Those are the typical sorts of questions that roll into PostNet International Franchise Corp. every day. Once upon a time, the Henderson, Nev., company's 31-person staff would have handled them one by one. Today hundreds of volunteers -- the company's own franchisees -- share the load. PostNet's Franchisee Web allows PostNet, which franchises postal- and business-service centers, to harness the energy and knowledge of its business licensees in more than 25 countries worldwide. In addition, the company uses the Web to deliver a wide array of services to its customers -- those same 700-plus franchisees.
The Franchisee Web message boards give users a chance to solve problems, celebrate triumphs, and sometimes just vent. More than 90% of the franchisees regularly visit the message boards, says PostNet executive vice-president Brian Spindel, who cofounded the company in 1992. But a core group of 50 or 60 users provide 80% of the input. Message boards provide PostNet's management with critical feedback, says Spindel, who checks in four or five times a day but usually doesn't participate. When franchisees want input from headquarters, they'll request it. "Then we'll know it's time to jump in with both feet and let them know what we really think," he says.
The password-protected message boards were the first feature available when PostNet launched the Franchisee Web, in 1997. The company later added many functions in response to users' requests. Now the site houses archived newsletters, links to approved vendors, and downloadable marketing materials (including TV commercials and jingles that can be sampled online). In addition, it lets franchisees upload customer databases to a central server. Using that information, PostNet handles direct-mail campaigns on its franchisees' behalf, a utility that Spindel calls the company's "killer marketing app."
Such efforts have paid off in increased franchisee communication and involvement, Spindel says. And consequently, revenues have grown, according to PostNet president, CEO, and cofounder Steven Greenbaum. "In the last few years," he explains, "our annual increase in same-store sales has been in excess of 20%, and we think that's a direct result of [franchisees'] ability to learn and share."
Most of the creative and design work on PostNet's extranet has been done in-house. Spindel and Greenbaum chose the features, based on franchisees' feedback, and PostNet's two-person graphics department designed the user-friendly look and feel. The company has outsourced most of its programming to a local Internet service provider, which also hosts the site. In the future, however, PostNet plans to handle those tasks on its own. "We'd like a bit more control," Spindel explains.
That's not all that's changing. Last year the company invested $10,000 in developing a new site, PostNetOnline.com, that drives profits from E-commerce, such as online orders for business cards, to franchisees. This year PostNet is building individual franchisee Web sites and plans to add an HR section to the Franchisee Web.
Meanwhile, the site remains a work in progress. "Any time I'm on a Web page," says Spindel, "I look at it, and I kind of steal ideas." --Mary Kwak
Track It Down
Company: Northwest Research Group
Web address: www.nwrg.com
Why it won: A password-protected site gives clients access to research 24 hours a day.
Company revenues: $2.3 million
Site-launch cost: $10,000
Judge's view: "This is what the Web was intended to do -- link information and people." --Randy Hinrichs
Don't try telling Rebecca Elmore-Yalch "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." The founder of Northwest Research Group, a custom-market-research company with offices in Seattle and Boise, Idaho, has prospered as both a doer and a teacher. In the mid-1980s, when Elmore-Yalch was teaching marketing research at the University of Washington, people started coming to her for help with research projects. "I fixed a few and suggested that maybe they should have me start from the beginning and do it right," she explains.
Fifteen years later, NWRG has conducted telephone surveys, run focus groups, and buttonholed straphangers for customers like the city of Seattle, the Chicago Transit Authority, and Amtrak. As part of its contract with Amtrak, NWRG built a password-protected addition to its Web site in 1997. The Research Site, as the area is known, allows Amtrak staffers to search all of NWRG's reports online. Some 30 users regularly visit the site, usually looking for the key fact or finding -- for example, that 30% of Amtrak travelers are first-time riders -- that will turn a run-of-the-mill presentation into a home run.
The Web site also provides answers to routine statistical queries, which frees NWRG's 10-person research staff to address higher-level issues. Now when customers call the researchers, it's usually for a more interesting discussion about what the data actually mean. And because customers can find facts on their own, NWRG no longer has to charge for looking things up. "It doesn't look like we're nickel-and-diming them every time they have a question," Elmore-Yalch says. But the real payoff for NWRG's customers, she believes, has little to do with money. "It just makes them look really smart, and that's what our business is about," she says. --M.K.
Automating an Automaker
Company: Badgett Constructors LLC
Web address: www.iceas.com
Why it won: The site offers a better -- and cheaper -- way to keep construction projects rolling.
Revenues: $26 million
Site launch cost: $100,000
Judge's view: "The best application for any business is to build the business processes online, so everyone can 'live in the data." --Randy Hinrichs
When it comes to changing course, the turning radius of a corporate giant like Ford is probably closer to that of those unfortunately large Excursions than, say, a diminutive Escort coupe. It took a small company, Badgett Constructors, in Louisville, to grab the wheel and bang a U-ie with its project-management extranet, called the Internet Contracting, Estimating and Accounting System, or ICEAS for short. Badgett, which manages construction at Ford's Louisville assembly plant, has automated the way projects get done and set a new standard for Ford contractors in the process.
The guy in the driver's seat is Gerald Carrico, Badgett's project manager for the plant. Carrico thought that giving Ford access to electronic versions of job cost estimates, invoices, minority-worker data, and project-status reports would save his team a lot of photocopying -- not to mention saving the company a pile of money. He also wanted to improve communication and accountability. "Sometimes engineers would tell us about a project they wanted us to estimate, but a lot of information would be left vague," Carrico says. "I wanted them to write up a scope."
Carrico called on O'Bryan Worley, who happens to be the daughter of Badgett owner and manager Kurt Broecker, and who is now a professional Web designer. Worley had the site purring like a kitten in just two months.
One early speed bump: getting the engineers to use the site. Some of them didn't even have Internet access at first, so Ford had to hook them up. Within eight months, some 300 Ford engineers and other contractors at 10 plants were entering data and retrieving reports. When anyone adds new information, the site automatically sends out an E-mail to all the appropriate people, which helps to ensure accountability.
Carrico estimates that ICEAS saves his company $75,000 a year in such things as photocopying, materials, and manpower, including 15 to 20 hours a week in clerical time. Ford gave Badgett a best-practices award, and Worley is now operating the site as a separate business that serves Badgett and 11 other construction companies. --Jill Hecht Maxwell
Conversation with Randy Hinrichs
Think intranets are dull? Listen to Randy Hinrichs for three minutes and you'll never feel that way again. To the exuberant Hinrichs, author of Intranets: What's the Bottom Line?, an intranet is no less than the foundation for a company's success.
Hinrichs knows a thing or two about creating powerful virtual spaces. He manages a team of developers who are creating next-generation learning environments at Microsoft. His mission is grand: to democratize learning and make it available anytime, anywhere, for anybody. Here's Hinrichs on the awards:
On his favorite site: "Badgett Constructors has created collaboration and communication and seamless workflow [mechanisms] that allow them to constantly improve work process and relationships, which is even more profound than improving communication."
On getting results from your site: "If I had to pick one thing that makes a Web site successful, it is that there's always a feedback mechanism from the average user, and that the average user gets a response -- not just 'I heard you,' but 'Check this out.' And that's what Badgett is doing. You can bid online, order online, interact online, and everyone can see the results of your work."
On building a business: "You're not going to be a good E-commerce site unless you're good inside. If you want to go out and be a company that says 'Our products rock,' [you have to say] 'Come inside and see the way our business rocks." --Elaine Appleton Grant
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