John DiCristo knows how to turn a losing situation into a winner. Take the dot-com fiasco. For a company with two “com”s and a “dot” in its URL (www.Clickcom.com), DiCristo’s hardly seems to have noticed the bubble’s burst in 2000. Founded in 1997 by three partners with one employee, Clickcom, Inc. now employs twelve people in their 2000-square-foot SouthPark office and is preparing to take their operation national with a contest that turns the traditional concept of winning upside down.
Clickcom offers an array of Web-related services and products, including hosting, site development, colocation services, site promotion, and domain registration. Far more than just a design service, Clickcom’s state-of-the-art proprietary applications allow clients to manage content, produce newsletters, conduct online training, give flash presentations, organize data, and improve search engine placement all with a simple “point, click, and type” interface.
New clients at Clickcom first receive one-on-one consulting. Clickcom takes the time to understand the client’s business and to tailor solutions to meet their needs. And once plans are agreed on, new Web sites can be up and running within days.
Then, the training that Clickcom provides their clients provides an example of the dedication to small business that sets Clickcom apart from other Web developers. Where many Web developers have enjoyed the dependence of their clients on them to update and manage their Web sites, Clickcom’s owners saw early on that small business owners want, and need, a more hands-on role in their own sites.
According to DiCristo, one of the most important aspects of a good Web site is its currency. And the best way for a Web site to stay current is to enable the business owner to update it easily without being dependent on the developer.
Clickcom’s trademarked content management application, dubbed “Wizzy,” allows business owners to “point, click, and type” to update their Web sites. Other proprietary applications allow business owners to easily produce high impact custom newsletters, register domain names, manage data, conduct online training, give flash presentations, and improve search engine placement.
The cutting-edge Web applications, designed to serve the needs of small business owners, are a big part of Clickcom’s success. But DiCristo says that what really sets his company apart is their commitment to customer service: “We try to answer the phone,” he says. And clients can walk into Clickcom’s office and speak directly to whomever they wish.
The company’s innovative approach and commitment to small business has not gone unnoticed. The Charlotte Business Journal has named Clickcom Charlotte’s top Web design company for the past three years. Among their more than 2,000 clients are the Charlotte Cobras, McColl Garella, Noble’s Restaurant, and the Landview Group.
At the end of 1997, DiCristo was working for NTN Communications, the developers of (among things) the interactive trivia games and consoles commonly encountered in bars and restaurants across the U.S. DiCristo, his brother Nick DiCristo, and former college roommate Jon Szymanski were the company’s master distributors for North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida. “We were happy with NTN Communications,” says DiCristo, “but we wanted to start our own thing.”
Although DiCristo’s degree is in computer information systems, his career, as well as those of Nick and Szymanski, had been in sales and marketing. After college DiCristo had joined another brother in running a real estate company, and only later joined NTN Communications.
Seeing a need for greater Internet accessibility, the DiCristo brothers and Szymanski founded Clickcom to provide both access and Web hosting. The Internet was just starting to boom and Clickcom found plentiful business in Charlotte, so much so that the company grew quickly encompassing more services and more employees.
From the start, DiCristo honed in on the small business market. Companies with between one and 50 employees form the basis of Clickcom’s clientele, with divisions of larger companies making up a smaller percentage. “We’ve always tried to understand the small business market,” says DiCristo.
“Clickcom has proven to be a true partner to small business,” says Sherré L. DeMao, owner of SLD Unlimited Marketing/PR, Inc. “They are an incredible, service-minded team of innovators that want to help small businesses succeed and flourish.”
It was that commitment that helped Clickcom weather the dot-com bust, and turn what was a losing situation for many companies into a winning scenario.
“We had to tighten our belts a little bit but we never had a lack of new customers,” claims DiCristo. “As a matter of fact, some of the bigger dot-coms lost a lot of their contracts and went out of business – but we picked up a lot of their small business clients because we were always strictly a small business company.”
While Clickcom historically has served a wide variety of small businesses, and continues to do so, DiCristo says they are beginning to hone in on a few vertical markets, particularly speakers, authors and writers. Why? DiCristo laughs, “If you make one speaker happy, they have big mouths and they tell all their friends.” The one speaker Clickcom made happy early on is the nationally recognized sales columnist, Jeffrey Gitomer.
Says Gitomer, “My relationship with Clickcom is natural and relaxed. It’s based on friendship and mutual need. I believe that America is Web-site deprived. The people at Clickcom are on the right track. I respect their ideas, I respect the people, I respect their work ethic, and most important – I have become friends with them.
My customers need them, and they need people like me to help them expose their products and service offerings – our marriage was a natural one. We have both delivered on our promises, and the relationship has endured based on mutual respect and performance. The friendship has blossomed, and our genuine ‘like’ for one another has solidified the relationship.”
Another niche Clickcom is carving for itself is among women business owners. DiCristo maintains close ties with the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO) and works with many companies in the organization including his accountant and his business consultant. In return, Clickcom has received a good reception among women-owned businesses. “The Charlotte group has been incredible to us,” says DiCristo, who admits to a special appreciation for working with women business owners.
And it’s no wonder, given the close but complicated relationships DiCristo has weathered with the main (male) business owners in his career – first his older brother with the real estate company and now his younger brother. Laughing, DiCristo unhesitatingly names working with a brother as his number one challenge. “We both know we can count on one another,” he says, “but at the same time, Thanksgiving dinner is sometimes a little stressful.” He cites a competitive streak between brothers that he finds refreshingly absent among women business owners.
In keeping with DiCristo’s affinity for women-owned businesses, Clickcom maintains a commitment to making their own company a family-friendly organization. For instance, one of their employees works from home on Friday afternoons so that she can be there with her children. Others have flexible work arrangements to accommodate their family needs.
In addition, Clickcom meets its community citizenship goals by reaching out to the nonprofit community. Currently, they provide free or reduced-fee services to more than sixty nonprofits including the Make a Wish Foundation, Junior League of Charlotte and Child’s Place.
The company’s core business has moved away from Internet access because, says DiCristo, they simply don’t want to compete with the big companies like Time Warner and AOL. Instead, they’ve grown the hosting end of the business and added other services with great success.
And Clickcom has no intention of standing still in that success. They plan to take the company national over the next two to three years, starting in St. Louis. “St. Louis has two and a half million people as compared to our one and a half million,” says DiCristo. “That will be a good test ground and then we’re going to take it national.”
The first stage in the company’s plan to grow nationally was completed at the end of September with the presentation of their “I Hate My Web site” competition award. The award, won by Carolina Clay, was given to the company that submitted the worst Web site for consideration with the prize being an “extreme Web site makeover” valued at $10,000.
DiCristo had the idea for the contest earlier this year and decided to move quickly in order to capitalize on the current craze for “Extreme Makeover” reality contests. Clickcom hired Emily Hickok in July to head the project and they promptly began putting the pieces together to make it reality.
Criteria for “worst Web site” included navigability, uniqueness of design, current status and usefulness. The board of judges included such well-known Charlotte personalities as radio host Mark Packer, author and speaker Jeffrey Gitomer, publisher John Paul Galles, business consultant Sheila Neisler, and nonprofit director Frank Gilmore. The “winner,” Carolina Clay, was chosen for its one-page, almost content-free site presented in black lettering on a white background.
If everything goes according to plan, Carolina Clay won’t be the last loser to win. Their $10,000 makeover is slated for completion by the beginning of 2005 and a new competition begins in St. Louis in January. Clickcom already has some clients in St. Louis as well as a partner there who helps with sales and is eager to assist with the next “I Hate My Web Site” competition.
The following “I Hate My Web Site” competition in the fall will go national. Almost two hundred companies entered the Charlotte competition and Hickok is confident they garnered attention from many more. They expect the upcoming competitions to receive even more attention.
“We’re good visionaries,” says DiCristo, who adds that the company’s national plans go beyond simply garnering national clients. For instance, they would like to help establish a reputable national Web developers association and DiCristo plans to qualify for membership in the National Speaker’s Association soon.
Clickcom’s national plans are ambitious but DiCristo is confident. And he should be – the company’s visions have always been grand and ahead of the game, and so far they’ve been right on target. Just don’t be surprised if they find some upside-down methods for reaching their goals. What else would you expect from a company that takes itself national by turning losers into winners?