Local businesses go virtual to go big | SierraSun.com

Local businesses go virtual to go big

Julie Brown
Sierra Sun

Emma Garrard/Sierra SunDerek Birdsall looks through merchandise in the warehouse of Porters Sports Lake Tahoe in Truckee Tuesday morning. The local ski and snowboarding store expanded its business last year by selling products online.

Homewood resident John Walker owns and operates a successful international business year-round from the comfort of his home via the Internet.

A retired airline pilot, Walker owns a handful of Web sites that sell boats, RVs and motorcycles.

He sells yachts in Australia, wooden boats in Minnesota, shrimp boats in Louisiana, ferries in England and canal boats in France. Walker completes the tasks in only a few hours of work each day from his desk on the West Shore, but his business operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“It’s just amazing how you can do business, sitting in my little office in Homewood. This used to be my grandfather’s bedroom,” Walker said. “I’m competing with the big guys, just little old me.”

For an economy with a drastic shoulder season, the Internet gives Tahoe Truckee businesses the ability to operate on a national and even international scale. But, online success does not come overnight. It requires a wealth of knowledge, resources, strategy, money and time.

Almost a year since Porters Sports Lake Tahoe launched an e-commerce campaign on its Web site, company owner John Chapman compared putting his business online to raising a child.

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“How has [Porters’ business] changed? If you want one good tagline of how it’s changed, it’s like having a child,” Chapman said. “It takes a while to make it; it takes a while to let it go, and then it launches, and its crying and screaming … ask me in another couple of years, once we get past the terrible twos and threes.”

Establishing a successful online business is harder than it seems, especially for those going into e-commerce, Chapman said.

“People have no idea how difficult it is to do a Web site properly,” Chapman said. “What was required of a Web site [a few years ago] is way less complicated than now; not as many bells and whistles. … A standard’s been set of what’s expected in a Web site of depth and breadth.

“The train has left the station for your average Ma and Pa to compete against” multi-million dollar Internet companies, he said.

And Chapman has a point. With online businesses booming in the million-dollar market, a small-town business has a lot to compete with.

“A lot of people see Web sites that say, ‘start your own business and go online,'” said Lars Ames, Porter’s Web site manager. “But, there’s so much to the back end of it.”

The biggest hurdle in the cutthroat game of online commerce is search-engine optimization, the method such search engines as Google and Yahoo! employ to prioritize Web sites when a user types in a few keywords, Ames said.

Approximately 70 to 80 percent of a Web site’s visitors come from a search engine, said Jason Wright, an employee on Walker’s technology team.

“If you don’t get up [on a Google or Yahoo! search] in the first few pages of what your category is, people just won’t take the time to find you,” Walker said.

Mastering search-engine optimization is an ongoing, complicated process. It’s an analytical science, one that is constantly evolving, Ames said.

“What I’m going to do [with search engine optimization], I don’t want other people to [know] because that’s how I get to the top and they don’t,” Ames said. “That’s not a slap in the face to anybody; that’s just how the business goes.”

Despite the challenge and hurdles of e-commerce, both Ames and Chapman have said Porters has done well for its first year.

“We were shooting for high goals and, of course, high goals are really relative to the industry,” Ames said. “We compare ourselves to the big players up there … we’re pretty much up there, if not surpassing some of those businesses.”

Porters’ Web site expanded its retailing from a local level to a national and, perhaps in the near-future, international level ” eliminating its dependency on Tahoe’s winters and slow-seasons, Chapman said.

“Traditionally in the Sierras, business doesn’t start until the snow flies,” Chapman said. “The plan is to get [the product] up online on the Internet as fast as possible and have people be able to buy it anywhere in the country, regardless of the snow in the Sierras.”

For an online business, there is no slow season unless you create one, Ames said.

Porters spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to go virtual, Chapman said. But, the company hopes its online business will eventually exceed in-store sales.

“Unfortunately, [e-commerce] is a building process,” Ames said. “If you look at any business that has been successful, it isn’t until the third or fourth year that things start to get successful”

But no matter how big they grow, Porters intends to maintain its local roots, Ames said.

“We definitely don’t want to disconnect ourselves from the stores because that really helps ourselves,” Ames said. “It’s not like we’re from Minnesota trying to sell our stuff; we’re actually in Tahoe.”

International, but local?

While Porters embraces its Tahoe identity, Walker rarely sells boats locally, which makes some wonder what the effect online businesses will have on the basin’s economy.

Going virtual could certainly strengthen individual businesses, but it may also cause a business to lose its physical connection with Tahoe, said Executive Director Kelly Atchley of the Tahoe City Downtown Association.

“My initial thought would be anything that improves the revenue stream for a business [would] contribute to its ability to stay here physically,” Atchley said in a phone interview.

While Tahoe City’s Gundy of Scandinavia, a local business since 1972, is about to go completely virtual, leaving vacant commercial space behind, David Polivy’s online business since 2003, Tahoe Mountain Sports, just opened a physical storefront in Kings Beach six weeks ago.

Gundy Owner Carol Rainville said business in Tahoe City is difficult, and she wanted to better address her customers, who are mostly tourists.

Customer demand drove Tahoe Mountain Sports owner Polivy to open the brick-and-mortar store, but his online customers are still the foundation of his business, he said.

“A business [that] is in the Tahoe Truckee area who is not pursuing a Web site is going to have a much harder time making it,” Polivy said. “The way our economy works with a seasonal economic model, where we have big spikes and dips ” the online part of the business really helps to flatten that out.”

While Porters embraces its Tahoe identity, Walker rarely sells boats locally, which makes some wonder what the effect online businesses will have on the basin’s economy.

Going virtual could certainly strengthen individual businesses, but it may also cause a business to lose its physical connection with Tahoe, said Executive Director Kelly Atchley of the Tahoe City Downtown Association.

“My initial thought would be anything that improves the revenue stream for a business [would] contribute to its ability to stay here physically,” Atchley said in a phone interview.

While Tahoe City’s Gundy of Scandinavia, a local business since 1972, is about to go completely virtual, leaving vacant commercial space behind, David Polivy’s online business since 2003, Tahoe Mountain Sports, just opened a physical storefront in Kings Beach six weeks ago.

Gundy Owner Carol Rainville said business in Tahoe City is difficult, and she wanted to better address her customers, who are mostly tourists.

Customer demand drove Tahoe Mountain Sports owner Polivy to open the brick-and-mortar store, but his online customers are still the foundation of his business, he said.

“A business [that] is in the Tahoe Truckee area who is not pursuing a Web site is going to have a much harder time making it,” Polivy said. “The way our economy works with a seasonal economic model, where we have big spikes and dips ” the online part of the business really helps to flatten that out.”