The Internet bubble implosion that humbled so many Web service businesses also occasioned what writer Paddy Chayefsky characterized in the famous book Network as “a cleansing moment of clarity.” The realization that a new, more systematic and accountable approach to Web development was necessary was made painfully clear. The new way to go, a course of business that set about integrating the most essential E-business practices from the bottom up, was the new order of the day. One company in the Seattle Internet community who has been showing the way, both during the Internet’s head-spinning heyday and since its dramatic day of reckoning, is GoTech.
Not every Web site has the courage to feature a Windows Media “Webside chat” with its Founder & CEO dissecting the Tech Crash of 2000 and articulating the firm’s philosophy of avoiding technology just for technology’s sake. But that is where you’ll link face-to-face with GoTech CEO Chris Colón, a constant crusader for cultivating “Best Practices” in the Web development community.
GoTech’s philosophy is perhaps best captured in the book, “How Digital is your Business?” by Adrian Slywotzky & David Morrison. The premise is that becoming a digital business is not about having a great Web site, having next generation software, or wiring your workforce. It’s about using digital technology to become unique. To create and capture profits in a new way.
“Too often organizations are using technology for technologies sake,” advises Colón. “In our work we have found that the most can be gained, not by applying new or cutting-edge technologies, but by adapting existing technologies to unique business processes. How an organization uses technology should start not with the technology but with the business.”
The center of GoTech’s Web development activities is its University District headquarters, five blocks from the University of Washington. The firm’s Web hosting servers are located at GoTech’s Network Operations Center in downtown Seattle’s Westin Building. The Web servers run redundantly off of two separate power grids, with two separate Internet backbone carriers supplying the hosted bandwidth. The facility is both earthquake-proof and fire-proof, with extensive security precautions ensuring access by authorized personnel only.
We sat down with Chris Colón, who is in his third year on the board of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, to discuss where GoTech is going today and which direction it is pointing its clients.
Seattle24x7: Where do you think we are standing right now in the evolution of the Web? What are you working on for your clients in terms of Web design and online capabilities?
Chris Colón: I think right now we’re focused on helping clients to interact intelligently with customers. We’re conducting electronic commerce, we’re using online surveys, and we’ve got Intranets for our employees to interact with. Most of GoTech’s work today has been bringing its clients to that level. Allowing companies to interact with their customers, partners, employees and vendors. I think the challenge of the next 5-8 years will be taking the step to that next generation which is Web applications — downloading data into internal business systems, merging data from external Web applications into the core internal processes of a business — like financial applications, supply chain applications, and CRM applications. I think XML is definitely enabling that and I’m really looking forward to it.
At the same time, so little of what we can do on the Internet has been unleashed. We hear about productivity gains in business and technology has helped, but we’re just unleashing a massive productivity surge that is going to be amazing to behold, when we can start interacting in real time with all of this data filtering into one place, customers interacting with a commerce Website and a business making decisions based on that interaction in real time.
Seattle24x7: The Web becomes the front end for a range of business processes, then?
Chris Colón: We’ve been doing electronic commerce for about 5 of our 7 years now, and the biggest challenge for us always ends up to be a very silly one, which is how do we get these orders processed into your order system. We’ve got them on the Web, they’ve been processed securely, the credit card’s been charged, this customer wants something. How do we get this to the warehouse, how do we get it into your financial system. There are 6-7 different standards. People don’t have the high-end infrastructure set up to do a VPN, so they end up using low-tech methods to get order information into their systems. A lot of it is very low-tech stuff based on this business problem of getting data from one place to another.
One of our largest clients in this category has been Driscolls, they are the largest grower of berries in the United States and have a number of brands in the grocery stores across the country. We’re helping them on the hard goods side with their corporate stores. We integrated their retail store with their online store so that it is all streamlined through one financial process and all the reports go together.
Seattle24x7: You mention XML. That has been touted for some time as being revolutionary.
Chris Colón: Revolutionary is a good word for it. We’re on the path of developing standards so that businesses can talk to each other, and data can be exchanged between different data sources. It’s a second inflection point as far as the Internet goes right now. The first was, hey, it’s the Internet, it’s the Web, let’s get our stuff online, let’s put our brochure up, let’s communicate with our customers and send some information to them. The second main inflection point for change is where we’re at now — which is let’s begin interacting with our customer, let’s allow them to purchase things online using electronic commerce, let’s survey them, let’s set up extranets that allow our customers and partners and suppliers to log in and order more supplies or give us updates on their inventory systems, etc.
The thing that’s keeping us from going forward to the next major inflection point is the ability to share data between different data sources. The ability of XML to enable these different data sources to talk in a common language with Web Services laid on top, to allow different resources to access those data from different points, not just locally, but around the world, that’s extraordinarily exciting to us.
Seattle24x7: Is GoTech “platform agnostic”?
Chris Colón: Well, agnostic is probably a little too strong because we do have some opinions on the matter. We tend to be a Windows shop. We run primarily Windows 2000 servers and we’ll be upgrading to 2003. Microsoft SQL Server is our primary database of choice. So that environment is typically where we do most of our work. We’re doing a lot of work with .Net as well as some of the middleware applications and are really pretty excited about what that’s going to mean for the future. With that said, it has always been pretty important to us to maintain portability with our clients. We’ve never wanted to lock something down to a specific vendor. We use an Application Development Environment called ColdFusion, a Macromedia product. which allows us to offer basically an environment on the Windows platform as well as Solaris, HP/UX and Linux. ColdFusion also works with a number of different databases. We’ve connected it with Oracle on a number of various successful projects. I’ve also worked with IBM DB2 and some others in addition to Microsoft SQL Server.
Seattle24x7: And you also look at Open Standards tools and solutions?
Chris Colón: I think Open Standards has a lot to offer. Linux has been an exciting entity to watch. There’s a lot to be said for security through peer review rather than through obscurity. I think that’s one of the best things that Linux and BIND and Sendmail and some of the other basic utilities offer. Microsoft has done a very good job in the last few years of creating some business applications that are second-to-none as far as rapid application development and deployment for business purposes. Now with that said, there are some times when going with a pure open source solution is a much better idea. I’m thinking about in Hollywood and the Lucas Films’ render farms that they have set up? That’s incredible stuff. If you need mass computational power, why buy a main frame or a minicomputer when you can have 300 dirt cheap Pentiums doing the same thing for less cost? Similarly, in running a server farm, we found that on the database end, and with some of the business applications information, hosting that on Microsoft or other proprietary platforms has been very beneficial, just because their focus is on helping businesses do what they need to do.
Seattle24x7: We’re impressed with your versatile Webmaster Support Program. How does it work?
Chris Colón: It’s something that came about 2-1/2 years ago. Folks were calling us with requests for a wide variety of different things: a small update, or for some advice, or to sit and meet about a new product. In order to handle these kinds of requests on an ad hoc, case by case basis, we thought, hmm, instead of partially serving clients let’s create a program that would handle these things on a month to month or quarterly basis. Whether it’s quick and dirty HTML that someone wants us to put up on a site, or evaluate a competitor’s product and issue a report to them, they love being able to come to us and our 20 different employees and 20 different skills sets and be able to turn that around.
In addition to the support, our Webmaster Support program involves things like 24-hour server monitoring. We also do a twice a year strategy session with all of our Webmaster clients. We’ll spent half a day of complimentary consulting as part of the program, analyzing their site, their market, and their competition and learning what their goals might be for the coming year. There’s a very low minimum cost to clients per quarter, in many cases it can be just a few hundred dollars.
In general, we have a very strong support program for working with our clients after our projects to make sure that their vision for what they want to do is continually met. That’s probably where we differentiate ourselves the most. We did an internal survey recently and our client retention rate has been 97% for our 7 years of business which we’re very proud of.
Seattle24x7: You’ve chosen Seattle’s University District as your home, not downtown or the eastside. Why?
Chris Colón: Our location was a very conscious effort. We began in Northgate but soon needed somewhere where we could expand. We looked around the entire region and it quickly became apparent to us that a central location was going to be important. Most of our clients are based in the “downtown” areas — downtown Bellevue and downtown Seattle, so central access was important. We also wanted somewhere where there was good local resources to draw in — in the sense of 4-5 blocks away. The university has been fantastic for us. We have intern programs where University of Washington students participate in both marketing as well as development. We’ve also found a great pool of candidates for employment. The district in general is going through a real growth period and that has been exciting to watch as well. There is a real community here that our staff enjoys being a part of.
Seattle24x7: You have also put together a set of marketing tools that are available on a case-by-case basis. Can you fill us in?
Chris Colón: Over and over, our clients were coming to us and asking us to build online surveys for them. Or, to use another example, email broadcasting campaigns. After a year of doing a couple of these a month, and charging our full consulting rate each time, we thought why don’t we take a step back, take what we’ve built, and empower our customers to be able to build and run these surveys and broadcast marketing campaigns. Compared with some tools in the past which were largely built for IT personnel, these are as easy as “here’s your login and password, go into this Website, type in your information, and voila’, you have a survey and it’s published online.”
The service is open to anyone on an as needed or ongoing basis. For the surveys we just charge on the number of respondents to a survey. You can invite as many people as you want. You can have as many surveys as you want. You can create 100, you can create 10, you can create one. You only pay when people, respond to a survey. On the broadcast side, it’s just based on the number of emails that are sent out.
Seattle24x7: What other programs or services are in the works?
Chris Colón: There are several product that we have coming down the pike. We have an event management solution that will allow clients to manage every aspect of their event online. Publishing it to the Website, get people registered for it, process credit cards for registration, have different slots for their classes, all through a Web interface just like our online survey tools. It’s another example of moving from something we’ve done repeatedly for clients and will turn into a tool to empower others. There’s no better research and development than 12, 15, 100 customers telling you what they need.
Seattle24x7: What has your experience been like on the board of the Seattle Chamber of Commerce?
Chris Colón: I’ve served for 3 years and look forward to several more hopefully. It’s been fantastic just talking to other business leaders in the community. This year the chair is Judy Runstadt, last year the chair was Bill Neukom of Microsoft. To pick his brain at some of the lunches and hear the talks by various local business leaders has been fascinating. GoTech is also involved very actively in the University District Chamber of Commerce. Additionally, we’ve forged partnerships with the King County Economic Development Council, The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce and the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce. The mission of today’s business associations is really changing compared to years gone by. These organizations are helping shape not only the framework for doing business in the area, but are also helping bring smaller and medium sized local businesses into a high tech marketplace.[24×7]
Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.