How DoctorEbiz ( Dr Ralph Wilson) pioneered online publishing

Someone happening upon one of the Websites of Wilson Internet Services for the first time might imagine an army of writers and editors working behind the scenes, all fed by venture capital millions. With about 1,000 idea-crammed pages at WilsonWeb.com and its associated Doctor Ebiz site, plus more than 7,500 links to Web marketing and e-commerce resources, the Wilson sites comprise the largest research center on Internet marketing anywhere on the Web.

Yet creating and managing Wilson Internet Services is largely the work of one man. Ralph F. Wilson, a Baptist minister, runs the site, handling ad sales and nearly all of the writing, with the help of just two link editors and his daughter, Ann, as subcontractors.

“I’ve very deliberately kept my organization lean, so I can focus on what I do best, be nimble enough to change as the markets change, and have the freedom to pursue my calling in the Christian ministry,” Wilson says.

When the industry mantra was “grow, grow, grow,” such amazing efficiency was regarded as quaint and silly. But with so many venture-funded dot-coms now dead or in trouble, bootstrapped Internet operations that have attracted a following, despite a tiny staff, begin to look smart.

Power to the puny

These puny Net businesses have some powerful advantages in today’s economic climate. They can change directions and respond to market trends on a dime. They can build depth and loyalty in narrow but profitable niches. And they can chug ahead in the black without having to please investors who suddenly lose their stomach for risk.

“Where a big company might have to send out surveys or buy expensive reports, I can poll my clients quickly and informally,” says Ramon Ray, a technology consultant who runs Smallbiztechnology.com. “If I’m at a conference, I can have new information in the hands of my loyal audience within minutes, whereas anyone else will take at least a day. When a press release comes out on a hot topic, I’ll interview key executives and put together a story long before the larger media have woken up.”

Laurence Master, president of DVD Overnight, which rents DVD movies by mail using the Web, doesn’t reveal the size of his staff, other than to say it is smaller than competitors’. But like Ray, Master says that running lean enables him to act almost immediately on any newly discovered needs of customers.

“Once someone wrote us to ask if we had thought about carrying middle-of-the-road erotica,” Master says. “Within two weeks we built a brand-new erotica section, starting with about 50 titles. If we were a heavily layered company, this would have taken quite a bit longer to implement.”

By staying small and not going after market share at any cost, Master says he is able to concentrate on building a loyal clientele: repeat customers who, over time, represent profits. “We handle hundreds of emails daily, and each one is answered personally by one of our staff. When we respond to a customer within hours, addressing them as if writing to a friend, we will most likely see that person again. This dialogue between company and customer is something that the giants have yet to be able to grasp. They’re simply not organized for it and rightfully so, since hundreds of emails a day is one thing, thousands or hundreds of thousands another.”

Like DVD Overnight going up against larger video chains, ebook publisher Booklocker.com uses a niche market and low overhead to hold its own against the book publishing goliaths.

“Traditional publishers lose money on small-run books because their overhead can’t support them,” says Richard Hoy, who founded and runs Booklocker.com with his wife, Angela Adair-Hoy. They earn the loyalty of independent writers with author-friendly policies such as 70 percent royalties and non-exclusive licensing. They also offer a better understanding of Internet marketing than do publishing executives schooled in print.

For example, Hoy points to key blunders accompanying the half-million downloads of Stephen King’s first online offering in March 2000. “They didn’t make giving your email address a requirement to download the story,” he says. “And rumor was that Stephen King couldn’t even open his own ebook because the format the publishers put it in was PC-only. King writes on a Mac.”

As investors frantically change direction in the scramble for black ink, many small online businesses just stay steadily on course, registering a healthy return on investment and even profits. “Being relieved of the pressure to pull in big bucks makes it easier to stay in business,” says Martha Retallick, who runs Lrpdesigns, a one-person Web design studio in Tucson, Ariz. “And with that kind of pressure out of the picture, you can build your business slowly and carefully, just like businessmen and women have for generations.”

“I’ve been quite content to grow gradually,” says WilsonWeb.com’s Wilson. “Though advertising revenue is down some at present, subscriptions to my premier e-commerce newsletter, Web Commerce Today, are up. So are sales of ebooks on e-commerce and Web marketing. Profits from this business have exceeded my expectations. I am grateful.”

Amen.