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Growing a niche business

Dec 01, 20033 mins
Collaboration SoftwareSecuritySmall and Medium Business

With a mix of Web consulting and non-technical tools, Chris Lobos brought his small business online

Ten years ago while still in college, Chris Lobos found his niche — selling remote control devices to managers of gated communities around Los Angeles. Because his family sold iron security gates, Lobos knew every resident needed a remote control to access the community. But since residents often lost the devices or moved without returning them, and manufacturers didn’t provide replacements easily, community managers were always in short supply.  Lobos has been meeting the demand by selling the devices through ads in local papers and industry publications ever since.

Earlier this year, a friend and Web developer, Marco Tassara, suggested Lobos expand his business by selling online. In February, they teamed to build

Immediately, the two realized the 150 miles between them would be a problem. Tassara needed face-to-face meetings with Lobos to teach him about Web graphics and search engine placement. They devoted other meetings to site content and pricing, sometimes spending up to 18 hours per day editing content.  But since Lobos was in Los Angeles and Tassara in San Diego, Lobos had to drive three hours for each meeting. 

“I had to get my hands on how things were done. Marco’s so knowledgeable and was always introducing something new to me,” Lobos says.  

In June, the two got a lucky break. While in the midst of finalizing the initial design, Macromedia invited Tassara to beta test Contribute 2.0 (Available now; single-user version $99.)  Upon installation, he realized the product was just what they needed — a tool that let Lobos edit content without altering Tassara’s Dreamweaver MX design. Contribute 2.0 lets designers such as Tassara  lock down page elements, while permitting non-technical users like Lobos add pictures and information as if using a word processor. 

Contribute 2.0 also provides a tool for creating a shopping cart and payment system using built-in links to the  PayPal online service, which Tassara used to build the e-commerce side of the site.

“I was always asking Marco how I could do things myself. And now with Contribute, I can add descriptions and change pricing,” Lobos says. He also takes digital product shots, uploads them to an FTP site for Tassara to tweak in Macromedia Fireworks. Lobos also sent content to Tassara via e-mails with zipped archives or URLs for his review.

The site, which launched in  July, paid for itself in two months.  Lobos now sells to consumers nationwide, and unexpectedly, has seen a spike in his management company business, some weeks taking several orders for batches of 50 remotes.  Lobos says the PayPal system has worked flawlessly, and that he gets few returns, indicating his product photos and descriptions do a good job guiding buyers to the right purchase.  

Today, Lobos handles site maintenance, but Tassara says the two might team again to expand the site and possibly create a second one to sell security gates.

Editor’s note: James Gaskin recently reviewed Contribute 2 in  his Small Business Tech column.