iMart Thinking Smaller

June 27, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — iMart founder and CEO Gary Mahieu learned some valuable lessons from his company’s advertising and marketing work within the region.

“More often than not, we were referring the calls we’d get to someone else,” he said. “iMart typically doesn’t do the smaller Web sites and stuff like that, even the medium-sized corporate Web sites.”

Since its inception, Mahieu’s company has focused on venture development consulting.

“My passion revolves around how can the Internet transform business,” he said. “Typically, either a corporation or a venture-backed startup will come to us and say we want to do XYZ on the Internet.  We’ll help them with strategic consulting and feasibility of whether or not this can even make sense.”

Some background on iMart:

Its principals cut their teeth in Quixtar’s venture group and later Silicon Valley. The company prides itself on understanding the Internet — how things work, what things work, and why.

An iMart client could be a large product manufacturer that is investigating if it should launch an online store. In such a case, iMart might perform intermediation with the OEM’s current retailers. It could identify issues with distributors — for instance, shipments from large manufacturers that are normally set up to ship individual items to customers.

Then it would examine logistical, fulfillment and performance issues as well as tax implications, online hosting, and customer care concerns.

A recent venture was Alticor’s teen-focused catalog startup, Blu Sphere. That launch required iMart to build the site’s entire e-commerce backbone and integrate it with the fulfillment system, then manage the Web site after launch.

More recently, iMart was contracted by Informd to build Advoca, a multimedia version of surgical consent forms. The 11-month, ongoing project required next-generation integration of Microsoft’s .NET platform and Macromedia Flash.

Other iMart clients include Fruit of the Loom and Fashion Bug, Bissell and a host of other Alticor ventures.

As he turned down prospect after small business prospect, Mahieu had a realization. Small businesses had no access to companies like iMart, Nusoft Solutions and Structure Interactive. They simply couldn’t afford them.

“Our sole existence until now has been dealing with very high-end brands, very sophisticated companies,” he said. “If we can bring that mindset to the small business community, it not only allows us to serve a much broader scope, but also bring that excellence and high-end treatment down to small business owners.”

In the past year, iMart has split its resources between its venture group and a group devoted to small business product development.

“You’ve got all of this technology available to large corporations or ventures with a significant level of funds, but up until recently small businesses haven’t had access,” Mahieu said. “So why don’t we create a system that will allow small businesses to take advantage of professional Web sites and additional functionality beyond that.”

Mahieu said the most common request he hears from small businesses is for integration.

“It’s surprising to see how difficult it is for them to patch together the pieces of software they need,” he said. “The individual components are available, but we’re not seeing an integration of those components.”

Large corporations are able to put together highly integrated packages, systems connecting human resources, customer service, accounting, logistics and administrative systems together around the Web site.

But mom-and-pop shops don’t have that ability to connect the pieces, Mahieu said.

“What they have to do is set them up individually,” he said. “The end results are patchy. It’s an attempt to put together a professional system, but they’re not quite able to get there.”

For the most part, that coveted integration is seen in the iMart Direct Architecture (IDA), the platform with which iMart builds most of its large enterprise ventures. Using IDA, iMart is developing a line of branded Web sites with e-commerce, customer service, accounting and other functions.

The software-as-service products also automate and manage the user’s domain name and merchant account. The product won’t likely appear on the shelf, and could be distributed online. Mahieu will offer both customized templates and unique designs.

“We think that small businesses have started to understand what the Web can bring to them,” Mahieu said. “We need to be in the position to serve them.”    

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