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MICROSCOPE: Company Reviews

MICROSCOPE: Company Reviews

Okay, point taken. E-business is just the newest wrinkle in the blanket, not a whole new bedspread.

The commercial rules followed by Phoenician traders flogging their wares around the Mediterranean nearly three thousand years ago still apply. Those who preach otherwise are broke, wiping egg off their faces, or both.

That said, you'll notice that nobody is dumping their e-business tools or ignoring the new reality of online conduits to their customers. Still needed are reliable partners who can help channel players wield those tools to the best advantage - people who can help set up a corporate e-presence, brand and market your wares online, even recruit Web-savvy staff for you.

The problem, as always, is how to separate the good from the indifferent.

Here are a few practitioners of the online arts who have caught my eye while reporting on the dot-com rollercoaster over the past two years. In a corporate sense, some are relative infants. Others have been around for what passes for yonks in Internet time. They all display energy and talent; they all seem to enjoy that indefinable something called survival instinct; and they all think on their feet.

Xession (www.xession.com)

You have to admire a Web developer that sets up in the funky part of town while boasting a client list studded with crisp CBD names.

Brisbane-based Xession, founded at the height of the dot-com mania two years ago, has grown to about 20 staff while larger competitors have fallen by the wayside. Its office sits in Brisbane's multicultural West End, overlooking a street crammed with pawn shops, Mediterranean eat-outs and vegetable stores.

Its co-founders provide a mix of business and creative skill. One is graphics whiz Dorian Dowse, 39, who has been running Web design companies since 1996. The other is Teilo Berquier, 29, who returned to Australia several years ago from a stint in the UK's ISP industry with a market research and project management skill set.

Among their clients are Telstra and the Brisbane City Council.

Xession believes its strength lies in knowing how to differentiate sites from their online competitors. "We don't ask clients to sign up for the next 14 years," says Berquier. "We say, 'Let's do a strategy component and you can pick that blueprint up and come back to us, or take that specification somewhere else.' That gives people confidence."

Love (www.lovebranding.com.au)

It's only been around since last April, but this online branding and marketing company boasts personnel with impressive credentials. The CEO is Julian Martin, an ad industry hot-shot who took Mojo into New York. Other directors are Monique Haylen, who co-founded investor networking group First Tuesday in Australia, award-winning advertising executive Siimon Reynolds, and UK-born online marketing specialist Tim Stokoe.

Together, they cram public relations, brand development and design, online marketing and advertising into a one-business unit.

Love's talents have been recognised by network integrator Com Tech Communications, which has struck up a strategic alliance to exploit its brand expression expertise.

Not only on top of significant trends such as viral marketing and 3D branding, Love's 16 employees have invented some of the new buzzwords themselves. An example is "constellation branding", a term coined by Martin to describe the phenomena of portal branding where a collection of sub-brands, each with its own group of loyal users, are gathered together in a site like ninemsn. The positive for each sub-brand is the greater reach provided by the portal association; the negative is the loss of individual identity amongst all the noise.

Mills Harding (www.millsharding.com.au)

Claiming to be the only recruitment agency that focuses entirely on placing Web professionals, Mills Harding isn't retreating from its game plan despite the dot-wreck.

Mills Harding was launched in 1997 by two live-wire businesswomen, Debra Harding (co-founder of "Chicks that Click", a non-profit organisation of female executives) and Sally Mills. It recruits for senior management, creative, sales and marketing and technical roles on both a permanent and contract basis.

Where 80 per cent of its client companies were once dot-coms, now 80 per cent are establishment businesses. But they are looking for exactly the same skill sets to staff their online initiatives.

With 15,000 resumes on its books, Mills Harding says knows everyone who is anyone in the industry. It believes its biggest edge is understanding the culture that makes the Internet industry different.

Once upon a time, that culture stressed flexibility, fun, entrepreneurial flair and endless cans of Jolt to power all-nighters. As mainstream companies take dot-com refugees into their folds, a certain amount of readjustment is going on but both sides are benefiting from the change, according to Harding.

HotHouse (www.hothouse.com.au)

The spark-plug behind Web developer HotHouse is managing director and co-founder Simon van Wyk. Not content with being just an Internet solutions provider, van Wyk has also set up Stuff.com.au, an online auction house along the lines of eBay and Fairfax's sold.com.au.

HotHouse was founded in the mid-1990s and its clients include Coca-Cola Amatil, Seven Network, McDonald's, Telstra and James Hardie Australia. Van Wyk should be nicknamed "Mr Shoestring" because of the way his instincts run to low cash-burn rates. He resisted the temptation to over-expand HotHouse during boom times and its staff count of 40 hasn't shrunk despite the leaned-down business environment.

"We never had a policy of spending like there was no tomorrow . . . we've always run the place like a business," van Wyk says. And he doesn't expect retrenchments in the future because he believes corporate Australia has absorbed the compelling business argument for using the Web.

"It saves them costs and in many cases gives them expanded distribution channels at a fraction of the cost of bricks and mortar expansion," he says.

Nor can any retailer worth its salt ignore how the Internet is becoming the consumer's research tool of choice. "Any corporate that doesn't have a handle on that is going to struggle."

Van Wyk agrees that many companies in the IT reseller space are equipped to do their own Web-enabling. "But there is not a company in Australia with three or four people sitting around doing nothing," he says. "Ultimately, they are better off getting a fresh outside pair of eyes to do it."Photograph: Pete Young


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