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Web Sm@rt

The hype may be long over, but for many entrepreneurs, excitement about the Internet -- and the possibilities it holds for their businesses -- is just beginning.

Some 58% of companies with fewer than 100 employees have a Web site, according to IDC, the Framingham (Mass.) researcher. But that's not where the action is. Instead, entrepreneurs are discovering how much is to be gained by creatively using, and investing in, Web technology.

Lisa Kirschner started winning international clients for her Schaumburg (Ill.) graphic design firm, Flair Creative Services, after she began using Web conferencing. Anthony Sandberg saw revenues at his OCSC Sailing School in Berkeley, Calif., jump after he posted streaming video and an interactive nautical lesson on the school's Web site. Arthur Phaneuf, owner of the New Hampshire Cremation Society in Manchester, found that selling cremations online is not so crazy after all.

These businesses have succeeded with what Peter DePietro, a professor of interactive communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., refers to as a "hyper-niche" Internet strategy. Rather than use the Net to try to become all things to all people, these entrepreneurs are taking what they do best and optimizing it via the Web.

Of course, this works only if you know what makes your customers tick. Kirschner knew her clients wanted to brainstorm with her, no matter where she was. Sandberg thought that video of a yacht under sail would get Web surfers onto the water. Phaneuf realized that some customers would prefer to deal with their mortality, or that of a loved one, in their own homes rather than in his office.

Embracing a one-of-a-kind Web strategy sometimes means that off-the-shelf hardware and software won't cut it. Robert Tuchman, founder of TSE Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing company that runs employee incentive programs, had to build his own systems and buy his own servers so that his company could create customized Web sites for its clients. The initial payout for hardware, software, and labor totaled about $65,000. But the return on that investment has been more than fifteenfold over three years -- suggesting that TSE's best days, and those of Internet enthusiasts, may still lie ahead.

By Eve Tahmincioglu

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