Getting in; getting out
One web designer's account of
why she got into the industry as an
entrepreneur and then out again.
Report #1 by Lim Li Hsien.

Only two years after she got into the highly profitable business of web design, entrepreneur and web designer Tery Spataro decided to get out.

[Picture of Tery] She had started Stir Associates with Alec Pollak, her partner, in 1996. In that short time they grew from a staff of two to 15, with contracts worth $30,000 to $150,000, as well as building for themselves a brand name and goodwill which subsequently brought her a profit when she sold her share in it to SenseNet Inc, a web applications company which had had a long association with Stir as a technology partner.

Spataro had started Stir (Strategy Tactics Implementation and Results) on a shoestring with $30,000 of her own savings and just one loan. But she had three good clients - Olympus America, Glaxo-Wellcome and Showtime - which started the ball rolling, and rolling.

But by 1998, it was beginning to slow down. The competition was getting tougher and Spataro had sensed there was a shake down coming in Silicon Alley. But the moment came when she was pitching for a big job with a large communications cable company.

She said: "It came down to us, and a much larger organization with 250 people." And she found that Fortune 500 companies wanted to deal with other Fortune 500 companies.

With economic hard times just around the corner, large institutions - in Wall Street and elsewhere - used to shelling out a few hundred thousand for services became more picky. And the lucrative contracts they used to hand out for web design and applications brought in more and more start up companies into the market, which made competition keen.

In an interview earlier his year with the on-line magazine Cybergrrl, Spataro said: "Have fun and explore, explore, explore! Next year it will be a whole different world."

"You have to be persistent in a way that's not obnoxious. You really want them to know you; and you really want to help them, not harass them."

It was a prescient statement. It would not be a few months before the loss of the big contract signaled the change of the way the industry was going to operate. Leaner times, and the expansion of the use of the web as a public medium meant that projects would get more competitive and bigger. Small companies would be edged out.

Spataro realized that staying competitive meant that Stir would have to expand, and quickly into a company with at least some 100 employees.

It made the difference between being able to spend time on creative projects or putting all her time as the CEO of a larger business into management and marketing.

Being a pure business person was not what she was after. This web designer started out as an artist, with 15 years in illustrating and graphic design. But watching paint dry was a little too slow for her. And the speed with which information and images could be shunted down electronic pathways opened up a vista of possibilities for her.

She got drawn into the net in 1989 when she started investigating the bulletin boards. "I got a sense of what was coming up. There was about 200 of us at that time. Those discussions just grew and grew."

In 1993, when she got into the industry, the graphic browser Mosaic was just beginning to be used in the academia. By 1996 she built up enough experience to put her fascination for the Internet into a concrete business plan that resulted in Stir.

Making the business work had been a combination of having a service in high demand and an organized marketing strategy. Spataro found that web-based businesses still need traditional marketing methods to get to clients. It was not enough to have an email list and a regular newsletter. Courting clients required persistence, and more persistence.

"We'd make postcards every time we launched a site, and put them into a kit we mail off to potential clients. I'd make cold calls, but make them regularly. You have to be persistent in a way that's not obnoxious. You really want them to know you; and you really want to help them, not harass them. Offer to talk to an assistant, if you can't get to the head," said Spataro.

Sometimes the process would take just a couple of weeks, and the longest took her eight months. The business end of her company consumed her time, translating into long 12-hour work days. But it took her away from what she wanted to do with the new technology.

And as it turned out the job that took eight months to get also became the means by which she could achieve her goals. It is now her current project - updating the web site and interfaces for the New York Public Library.

[Tery in Action]

She puts it this way: "My aim is to build clear, clean interfaces. My job is to make it easy to use."

With experience as an entrepreneur and manager under her belt, she says her ultimate dream project would be to create an interface to would allow companies to access data on a total scale. For example, she used to work for a large cosmetic company and found that research showed that that 30 per cent of customers like the color apple-red.

She said: "So I said wouldn't it make sense to share this with research & development? And the response was, yes, we'll send them the information in a report. But wouldn't it be better to have an intranet that allowed the market studies to filter to R&D? That it can develop products with this color - as well as the distribution channels so they can display reds at eye level on the counters?"

Being at the start of a revolution has whetted her appetite for a new one - changing the way companies think about information. The traditional top down style of management - having information concentrated with managers will give way to a more lateral style of information flow.

Spataro wants to make that happen, and her job is to create the system that will make it happen smoothly.

"The company is losing lots of money when information is clogged up. I want to build a base where it can flow to all its different parts. Instead of the manager holding it all in his head, you can share that information.'' she said.

It looks like others want to share in her vision. Since she sold off her company, about 20 others have offered her jobs. Spataro says she has narrowed her choice down to three. But she is in no hurry.

She said: "There is so much more to the web than marketing and communication. There is so much more purpose to it."