Do You Need Bricks and Mortar Anymore?

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. "Thereís no longer any need to live next to population centers to grow your business. All my clients sell nationally and it wouldnít 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 todayís world, thereís 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 companyís 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 doesnít mean you sit back and relax. Donít forget the impact sales calls can have.

"Thereís 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 Ė an in-person, hands-on experience.

"Something goes on in a retail situation thatís fun, that draws you there," Benson says. "You canít try out a fly reel online Ė but you can in an in-store fish tank. You canít listen to music, people-watch or try on clothes, either."

Make Storefronts and Websites Complement Each Other

Websites and brick-and-mortar businesses arenít mutually exclusive. But is one necessary or more important than the other? Todayís entrepreneurs often must figure out how to marry, or at least engage, the two.

Itís possible to succeed by being strictly one or the other, but itís 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 youíre starting a company and you donít think about that, youíre 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 itís 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 donít have to.

"Iím a big believer in being where your customer is," she says. "I target busy women, and most of the time theyíre at their desks. Theyíre 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 donít take the Internet seriously. "Iím appalled when I find some of them havenít done anything with their Websites," she says. "It seems like such a waste of an opportunity.

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