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Key to Success for Entrepreneurs is a Mix of Good Hiring, Marketing, Risk-Taking

Clover Sites Thrives Despite Ample Competition

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Key to Success for Entrepreneurs is a Mix of Good Hiring, Marketing, Risk-Taking

How many website development companies are there in the world? Might as well ask how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

So how can anyone stand out in the hugely fragmented, entrepreneurial world of website building? You'd have to have a combination of factors going for you to make that happen. Better technology would be a given. A price almost any small business can afford would be great, too. If the design didn't look like something a third-grader (one without artistic skill) put together, even better.

Meet Clover Sites Inc., who's tagline says it all: we make websites for people, not programmers. Launched in 2008 by Jimm Elliston, 31 and Ben Rugg, 30, Clover's mission is to enable small business owners to create and maintain beautiful, affordable websites without hiring designers or programmers. The websites Clover has built are simple and elegant in design, and the company has a pricing model to match. To create a Clover site costs $1,000 plus $20 a month. Of course, you can also get a website from GoDaddy, Intuit, and countless other sources for the price of a sandwich (literally), so you'll have to be the judge of what each paint-by-number provider has to offer and whether Clover is worth the premium over those solutions. On the flip side, it's also possible to spend $10,000 or more on a custom website. Somewhere in the middle is a template-driven website that looks custom -- which is where Clover resides.

The company launched in a highly vertical niche -- the religious market -- creating sites for churches. The partners stumbled into the religious market because they were both on staff at a local church. Jim said the choice of that vertical was core to their success. "Churches have a specific set of needs, for putting up media, sermons, videos and calendars of events." So having all those functions available and easy to use for tech novices was important.

Since 2008, customers have created more than 4,500 sites, about 90 percent of them in the church market so far. The company is now adding features to appeal to a more general-interest, small business market.

Some insights on the entrepreneurial journey of the founders:

What are the biggest mistakes you have made in your business?

  • Hiring people without a very clear idea of the role they will fill. We've all heard lots of large companies talk about the concept of hiring for the people, rather than the role. That theory may work fine when you have 5000 employees and you can move talented people around to maximize the results you get from them. That doesn't work so well, however, when you have a small team and you need very specific jobs done.
  • Hiring for projected growth. We had a time when our sales were growing exponentially, and it looked like they were only going to continue at that pace. We hired several additional customer service people in an attempt to get them all trained before we hit an even faster period of growth, even though we didn't necessarily need them at the time they were hired. Our sales have continued to grow, but not at the expected pace, and for a while we had a pretty bored customer service team.
  • Measuring success with number of employees. This is just plain dumb. A small team of great people is much better than a large team of average people. Admittedly, though, it's sometimes hard to break away from the game of comparing your business to another, based on the supposed success of having a lot of employees.

What are the best decisions you've made in your business?

  • Measuring the success of each ad campaign individually. It was sort of something we stumbled into, but with the simple tool of asking each customer how they heard about us, we were able to get a good handle on what advertising was actually working. Since then we've made our tracking quite a bit more sophisticated, and it's extremely useful, because it allows us to focus our money on what's actually working.
  • Treating customer service like marketing. More accurately, treat people like real people. We absolutely love providing over-the-top customer service. Ironically, we get an extremely low percentage of people calling in about problems, but when we do, we treat them so well, they tell others about us simply because of our great service. We also speak like real people (go figure) and we never try to pretend that we're bigger than we are.
  • Being gutsy when it comes to the right risks. Early on in our business, we had the chance to advertise at a big conference. The problem was that the only spot left was the premier sponsorship for $15,000 and that was the entire amount of profit we'd made up to that point. We debated for about 5 minutes and then said "yes", because we had enough guts to bet on the fact that the conference would pay off. It ended up being the right decision and it helped shape our internal decision making from that point on.
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