Local Firm Has That Silicon Flavor

June 25, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — iMart is somewhat of a surprising find in Grand Rapids.

A member company of the San Jose Software Business Cluster, the homegrown e-commerce firm has roots in Silicon Valley, even if it calls Grand Rapids home.

Childhood friends Gary Mahieu and Robert Chung followed different paths after graduating from a private Christian school, Cedar Lake Academy (now Great Lakes Adventist Academy). Both discovered the Internet in its infancy and became involved in ambitious corporate launches.

Mahieu cut his teeth in direct marketing and helped to develop an online corporate sales incentive program for Amerishop Corp.; later, he was one of Amway’s team leaders on the Quixtar launch.

Chung was involved in General Motors’ first extranet initiative, GM Media Online, and played a critical role in the creation of GM BuyPower, the manufacturer’s online sales tool.

“I had a big part in Quixtar and Bob had had a big part in GM BuyPower,” Mahieu explained. “We knew that both of us as partners had been a part of two of the most significant launches on the Internet. We felt that we had the knowledge and experience necessary to provide some awesome service to companies in Grand Rapids and outside it.”

Of course, it turned out that less than half of iMart’s work would be done in its hometown.

“We decided that if we were ever going to go into anything, we wanted to understand thoroughly what the market was,” Mahieu said. “We wanted to get a broader scope on either end of the coast, so we started out in Seattle and met with every Internet company we could possibly get a meeting with and talked about their business models.”

From late 1999 to early 2000, the partners traveled the length of the western seaboard, beginning in Microsoft’s Seattle and traveling straight through Silicon Valley with a final destination of Los Angeles. Along the way, they made contacts and learned lessons, and discovered the San Jose Software Business Cluster (SJSBC).

Sponsored by Intel, with partnerships with Microsoft and Hewlett Packard among a multitude of others, SJSBC provides tenant space and resources for startups and emerging technology businesses.

“It’s intended to be an incubator for the Silicon Valley area,” Mahieu said. “When we met them we knew that if we were going to build a successful company, we had to associate with these guys early on. They had the experience and the connections that we needed.”

iMart set up shop in the incubator and developed its business model and contacts, focusing on the core competencies of direct marketing and direct selling that the two partners had developed in their prior ventures.

When iMart returned to Grand Rapids, it immediately began a long-standing relationship with Quixtar, and would soon develop relationships with Bissell, Fruit of the Loom, Fashion Bug and Chadwick’s of Boston.

“Direct marketing is a way you can reach customers through advertisement or some sort of communication” Mahieu said. “iMart’s focus is that we can use the Internet to help companies reach customers in new ways.”

Focusing on corporate-backed ventures, iMart has recently launched Internet systems for catalog companies, developed new ways for hospitals to reach their patients and developed a new method of selling products via the Web to teen consumers.

“Typically, we only work with companies that are venture-backed by some larger corporation that wants to reach consumers in a new way,” Mahieu said.

“A lot of software companies out there provide an a la carte service; we don’t do that. We won’t do just everything for everybody. We’re very specific about our clients because of the level of service we want to deliver.”

Using a strategy that they said focuses on excellence over growth, iMart has indeed grown — by no less than 35 percent each year since 1999.

Still a new company at the top of the dotcom crash, iMart had its philosophy tested when its peers were struggling.

“We felt it like everyone else,” Mahieu said. “And we sat down and discussed our philosophy, namely the message we wanted to send our employees. We had to decide whether or not we wanted to keep all of the bright people who we had attracted.

“We knew that the only way to survive would be to retain excellent employees, and we couldn’t do that without loyalty. We made that a core principle and we opted for some personal sacrifices instead.”

Rather than lay off any employees, the founding partners opted instead to stop paying themselves until the bust had passed. But the company quickly began to gain clients and has grown consistently since.

iMart currently has between 25 and 30 employees, and has never had layoffs.

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