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Internet Developer Should Develop Internally

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Big Time Media Inc. has been so busy trying to keep up in the fast-paced world of Internet development that the San Clemente company hasn’t had much time to devote to its own operations.

It’s a task the company knows is overdue. Juggling 10 to 15 jobs at a time and coordinating 13 employees and a crew of independent contractors are putting a strain on the informal infrastructure set up when the business was one-third its current size.

“We are taking on a job right now--it’s huge--but if we don’t get that done on time, it could mean the company,” said Nicole A. Baker, founder and co-owner of Big Time Media, which develops Web sites and Internet business solutions for clients. With sales at $250,000 last year and $750,000 so far this year, there’s a lot at stake.

Baker has taken steps to speed up client projects and improve internal communications but acknowledges that more needs to be done to take the 4-year-old business to the next stage.

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Adding to the pressure to improve operations is the consolidation of the Internet services industry. Competitors are being bought out or are scooping up weaker rivals, leaving fewer but bigger and richer players.

Baker wouldn’t object to a future offer for the company, which she owns with Frank Shofner, the chief information officer, but she wants to be sure the business is valued highly.

To achieve that goal, the company has to find a way to distinguish itself from its competitors, said consultant Philippe Jeanmaire, a senior manager at Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles.

Creating a super-efficient infrastructure is one way to boost sales and profit and dazzle a potential buyer, the consultant said. Baker, whose professional background is in marketing (the company was formerly known as Millennium Marketing Solutions), could also focus on innovative marketing, said Jeanmaire, pointing to Dell Computer Corp. as an example. More expensive but also a possibility would be to come up with a dynamite software application, he said.

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What’s important is that the company realize competence alone is no longer enough.

“You either keep going the way you are now and grow very slowly, very dependent on the next order, or you generate larger growth with an idea that makes you different,” said Jeanmaire, who works in management solutions and services at the international accounting and consulting firm.

It’s a lesson that applies to many companies, he said.

Jeanmaire recommended that Big Time Media begin to build value by creating an infrastructure that doesn’t rely on the specific knowledge of Baker or other individuals in the company. If the company can become a self-sustained “business machine,” he said, it will have value beyond its customer list. That would be attractive to a potential acquirer, particularly one that lacks an efficient infrastructure.

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To outshine its competitors in operations or any other area, Big Time Media must create a culture of continuous improvement, Jeanmaire said. Baker can serve as the catalyst, but she’ll have to rely on the people she works with to make it happen, he said.

“Considering the size of the company, the key to building that infrastructure is to follow a master plan and have all the employees participate in creating it a piece at a time,” he said.

The company should initially focus on eliminating activities that don’t add value, in order to free resources for its new goals, Jeanmaire said.

Some of those resources should be spent putting together an employee performance management system, the consultant said.

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“You need to understand what behaviors you need to create to support your business objective,” he said. Constant communication of the desired behavior and its role in meeting company goals will drive the improvements the company needs to stand out from its competitors.

To start, he recommended that Baker use the company’s weekly meetings to communicate her goals, to show her long-term commitment to those objectives and to ask employees for ideas on how to achieve them. Ideas should be tackled one at a time, he said. Otherwise the small company risks losing momentum.

Next, he suggested that Baker set goals and document her expectations for each employee. That should be done every three months. Employee performance should be assessed monthly until Baker is confident each employee understands the company goals and how to meet them.

Rather than viewing it as a punitive experience, Jeanmaire said Baker should emphasize the positive aspects of employee development, show how the company’s goals benefit the employee and reward behavior that supports those goals. Annual performance evaluations aren’t enough when a company is trying to speed up change, he said.

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“Nicole cannot do it on her own; she has to get all her employees working to add value to the business,” he said.

Based on a brief interview with employees, Jeanmaire also suggested several ways to reduce time wasted searching for information, a common complaint at the company. He recommended a sales form be used to record customer requests in a standard format. That will help the salespeople communicate in a structured way with the programmers, who will be better able to meet customer needs. Employees should be encouraged to suggest changes to the form as needed, he said.

The consultant also suggested Baker set up a shared database that would allow an employee to type in a customer name and instantly access all communications with the client. It’s the type of thing the company might do for its customers but hadn’t yet taken the time to create for itself, he said. The database could be put on an intranet in a few days and would pay for itself within weeks while improving customer service.

Eventually the company could go beyond the basics and add customer invoices, a copy of the original contract, etc., to the database, but it’s important not to waste limited resources on nonessentials in the beginning.

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“Don’t try to make it perfect,” Jeanmaire said.

That message applies to all of his recommendations for Big Time Media or any company attempting to distinguish itself while on a tight budget, he said. The important thing is to get started with small steps, then persevere.

“Don’t try to fix everything in the first week and lose focus soon after,” he said.

Baker, who has worked hard to increase her company’s visibility in the marketplace, has already tackled some of Jeanmaire’s recommendations. She partly credits a long line of entrepreneurs in her family for her ability to meet the challenging, energy-consuming demands of competing in an industry in which change seems to happen at the speed of light.

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“It’s very scary. You can’t sit down long enough in this business to enjoy” your success, Baker said. “You’ve got to get up and do it again.”

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If you would like to apply for a Business Make-Over, send a letter describing your company and its problem areas to: Business Make-Overs, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Cyndia Zwahlen can be reached at cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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This Week’s Business Make-Over

* Company name: Big Time Media Inc.

* Headquarters: San Clemente

* Type of business: Electronic-commerce systems integration; Web site development

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* Status: Private corporation

* Owners: Nicole A. Baker and Frank Shofner

* Founded: 1995

* Start-up financing: $20,000 in savings, credit cards and family gifts

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* 1998 sales: $250,000

* Employees: 13 full-time, plus independent contractors

* Customers include: NexGen SI, Verbal Advantage, UrbanTech.com

Main Problem

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How to improve operations and expand the business.

Goal

To become the largest Southern California Internet development company or to be acquired by a larger company.

Recommendations

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* Differentiate the company from its competitors.

* Create a culture of continuous improvement based on employee participation.

* Build the business processes and elements of an infrastructure.

* Reduce wasted time by creating a shared customer database.

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* Hold weekly planning meetings.

Meet the Consultant

Philippe Jeanmaire is a senior manager in management solutions and services at Deloitte & Touche in Los Angeles. He has 15 years of experience in international manufacturing management, including helping companies develop and implement process strategies, packaged systems and custom software solutions.


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