Now That's A Hail Mary Play

Inside a betting $5 million on the Super Bowl

To find the headquarters of Inc., head west from downtown Orlando about five miles until the neighborhood turns, uh, more interesting. OurBeginning's nondescript industrial building is easy to overlook among the shabby storefronts. So maybe this will help: It's across the street from the Pooch & Purr Grooming Salon and a few doors down from God's Miracle House of Prayer.

It's about the last place you'd expect to find a company that will share the stage with BMW, Visa, and other corporate giants that have purchased commercials on Super Bowl Sunday, Jan. 30. Ad time for the top-rated TV show of the year--the audience is expected to hit 135 million--runs as high as $3 million for a 30-second spot. At those prices, you would think that only companies with the flushest marketing budgets would give it a thought.

Yet OurBeginning, an online stationery e-tailer that launched its Web site only last April, is right in there with the big boys. So what if it has just 12 full-time employees and, according to Chief Executive Michael E. Budowski, has thus far racked up revenues of a little over $1 million? OurBeginning is paying to produce and air three pregame ads and a fourth spot to run during the game at a cost of about $4 million (plus $1 million for tech upgrades to handle the expected surge in site traffic).

"NOT NUTS." There's no doubting Budowski's nerve. But what about his sanity? "This is a risky move. It's certainly an aggressive strategy. But I'm not nuts," says the stocky 34-year-old with a grin. In fact, he admits to only one regret: "I wish I'd thought about buying more."

It's big talk from a small company. But OurBeginning isn't the first to use the Super Bowl to break out of the cyberclutter. Last year, job sites and made big splashes with clever commercials. Monster averaged 600 job searches per minute before the game, compared with 2,900 after. "There aren't many places to establish a brand as quickly to a mass audience," says Charlene Li, who tracks advertisers for Forrester Research Inc., a Cambridge (Mass.) Internet research firm.

The exposure is, presumably, still paying off for Monster and HotJobs. Both are back this year as Super Bowl advertisers, and HotJobs is a hot stock--its share price has tripled since its initial public offering in August.

It may not be as easy for this year's larger class of advertisers, however: As many as 12 will be competing for the attention of beer-sloshed fans. For advertisers who cut through the haze, though, the rewards can be enormous. Some 8% of the audience--almost 11 million viewers--concede that they actually tune in to watch the commercials, according to a study by Eisner Communications, a Baltimore-based firm that conducts Super Bowl research.

That helps explain why Budowski is laying down the biggest bet of his life. Already, the move has lifted OurBeginning from obscurity onto the radar screen of Wall Street investors, a major objective since the company plans an IPO this year. At the same time, it's a warning shot to competitors in the fragmented online-printing category. "It sends a very clear message: `I am taking this very seriously,"' says Li of Forrester Research.

The Super Bowl ad campaign also has given Budowski his 15 minutes of fame, which he is wearing comfortably. Tooling around Orlando at the wheel of his 1995 GMC Yukon last week, he said offhandedly: "I consider myself a visionary." Budowski has had the vision thing before, though on a smaller scale. At 20, he left community college to start an exterminating company that he ran out of his parents' garage in Crofton, Md. He still owns that business, which has since expanded to eight states, and several other enterprises, including a steakhouse.

OurBeginning began in the Budowski's Orlando home, where his wife, Susan ran a small business as a wedding consultant. Budowski persuaded her to expand into cyberspace and last spring launched a Web site. Customers click through pages showing wedding invitations, thank-you notes, birth announcements, and starting soon, business cards and letterheads. OurBeginning forwards the orders to outside printers that ship to customers under the OurBeginning label.

Budowski's Super Bowl dream revealed itself as he lay in bed last September. He remembers thinking: "Here's a way to put a turbocharger in this company." He quickly shared the idea with investor and Chief Operating Officer Michael C. Brandenberg and Susan. "The Super Bowl is huge," recalls Susan. "I thought he was kidding."

SNEAK PEEK. To pay for the spots, Budowski and Brandenberg spent the next three weeks raising $5 million through loans and sell-offs of equity positions. They bulked up the site so it could handle 2 million users a day, compared with the average of 10,000. And they hired Disney i.d.e.a.s., a unit of Walt Disney Co., to create slick comedy out of the seemingly humorless topics of stationery and personalized Post-It notes.

OurBeginning paid Disney $1 million for its four spots and a fifth that Super Bowl viewers won't see. ABC's censors found its language offensive and rejected it, citing "antisocial behavior," Budowski notes. For OurBeginning, it's a case either of exquisite luck or shrewd marketing, because the company plans to post the banned ad on its Web site as a means of generating additional traffic. "It never hurts for people to be talking about an ad too risque for TV," says David Blum, a vice-president at Eisner Communications. In another effort to drive traffic, OurBeginning will pay $250,000 to a lucky Web surfer who registers at its site. Budowski says he hopes to create a data base of 5 million customers, including many who heard about the site on the big game.

If a tiny fraction uses OurBeginning to buy business cards and party invitations, Budowski's bet will have paid off. And if they don't? "It doesn't fold the company," he says. "I like living on the edge, but not that close to the edge."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.