Do You Need Bricks and Mortar Anymore?

Is it necessary to build a storefront, or can you run a successful business on the Web alone? Sometimes you do need both.
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Fortunately for entrepreneurs who prefer to run their businesses far from frenetic population centers, the Internet has rendered the world flat.

Laramie, Wyo., population 26,000, sits 7,200 feet above sea level between the Medicine Bow and Laramie mountain ranges.

“This is a big state with 500,000 people,” says Jonathon Benson, CEO of the Wyoming Technology Business Center at the University of Wyoming, a nine-firm business incubator. “There’s no longer any need to live next to population centers to grow your business. All my clients sell nationally and it wouldn’t be possible without the Internet.”

We see thousands of entrepreneurs in our community at StartupNation, some trying to start a business and some trying to grow. In today’s world, there’s no excuse for not having a Website. Whether you need a brick-and-mortar storefront, well, that’s not always as clear. Sometimes it pays to have both; the key lies in knowing your market.

A Website Saves Money, Expands Market

IDES, a plastic materials information company, began in Laramie 20 years ago with a catalog. When IDES stopped printing the book and moved its information exclusively online, it not only slashed overhead by two-thirds, it expanded the company’s visibility.

“The neat thing about the Internet is your customer finds you,” Benson says. “How cool is this? Before, we were all trying to find our customer and make him aware of what it is we have.”

Still, a strong online presence doesn’t mean you sit back and relax. Don’t forget the impact sales calls can have.

“There’s still a lot to be said for calling on people, face-to-face, particularly when you first start your business,” Benson says.

And, despite the enormous growth of e-tail, many brick-and-mortar stores have emphasized one of their biggest advantages – an in-person, hands-on experience.

“Something goes on in a retail situation that’s fun, that draws you there,” Benson says. “You can’t try out a fly reel online – but you can in an in-store fish tank. You can’t listen to music, people-watch or try on clothes, either.”

Make Storefronts and Websites Complement Each Other

Websites and brick-and-mortar businesses aren’t mutually exclusive. But is one necessary or more important than the other? Today’s entrepreneurs often must figure out how to marry, or at least engage, the two.

It’s possible to succeed by being strictly one or the other, but it’s not the smartest approach, says Tony Warren, director of the Farrell Center for Corporate Innovation and Entrepreneurship, at Penn State.

“The Internet is a vital part of any business now and if you’re starting a company and you don’t think about that, you’re missing an opportunity,” he says. “The real opportunities are when you are both.”

Smart entrepreneurs combine the best of the Web with brick-and-mortar. A good example is the once storefront-only movie-rental giant Blockbuster and its recent efforts to fight back at rival Netflix, the Web-based mail-order DVD-rental company. Blockbuster now offers both in-store and mail-order DVD rental options, and includes free in-store game rentals with its monthly rental agreements.

Know Your Market

Many startups are online-only, primarily because it’s the cheapest, easiest way to start up, says Michelle Madhok, founder and president of SheFinds.com, an online shopping site that studies trends then finds and links to deals so busy women don’t have to.

“I’m a big believer in being where your customer is,” she says. “I target busy women, and most of the time they’re at their desks. They’re certainly not walking the mall.”

Madhok created SheFinds.com in 2004, after overseeing online content for AOL and CBS television. It cost her about $1,000 to launch the site, which gets 10,000 hits a day and recently launched a spinoff, SheFindsMom.com.

It frustrates Madhok when the small design houses she works with don’t take the Internet seriously. “I’m appalled when I find some of them haven’t done anything with their Websites,” she says. “It seems like such a waste of an opportunity.

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