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Eppraisals.com Gives Lante High Marks

Written By: J. Diezemann
Published On: June 12 2000

Eppraisals.com Gives Lante High Marks
J. Diezemann and E. Robins - June 12, 2000

Case Study Summary

Chicago-based startup eppraisals.com sought to deploy a new business model utilizing the web to offer art and antiques appraisal services to the general public through a network of experts scattered across the country. An enjoyable, yet efficient site was critical in creating a community of art lovers and appraisal professionals. Eppraisals.com engaged Chicago-based Digital Business Services Provider (DBSP) Lante Corporation (Lante) to build their site because of Lante's competencies and willingness to meet incredibly tight deadlines.

User Background

Leslie Hindman, a 20-year veteran of the art world, founded Eppraisals.com shortly after she sold her own Chicago bricks and mortar auction house to Sotheby's. Throughout her career Hindman had received thousands of letters from people requesting information about their items. She realized the web would be the perfect medium to provide quick, efficient and thorough information and value for people around the world. Besides having a lengthy career, Leslie Hindman is a well-known and public figure in the art world, with two top-rated television shows covering art and antiques on the Home and Garden network (HGTV), and a weekly column for the Chicago Tribune family of newspapers. She is also publishing a book this fall on buying and selling at auction. Her high profile and experience in the industry assisted her in early 1999 to raise several million dollars from contacts in the industry, to subsequently hire key personnel, and launch the business.

The eppraisals.com site is composed of three distinct parts: a consumer side where customers upload images and other data for evaluation; a second site for the 700 plus members of a geographically dispersed network of nationally recognized experts who view and evaluate the items, and a third site for administrative purposes including quality assurance.

As a "first mover," eppraisals.com wanted to establish and maintain a dominant position within the industry as quickly as possible. CIO Henry King faced the daunting task of getting a sophisticated e-commerce website up and running within a four month period. The challenge of selecting a DBSP who not only had the necessary capabilities, but also was willing to commit to eppraisals.com's aggressive schedule, was a priority. As a "first mover," eppraisals.com wanted to establish and maintain a dominant position within the industry as quickly as possible. CIO Henry King faced the daunting task of getting a sophisticated e-commerce website up and running within a four month period. The challenge of selecting a DBSP who not only had the necessary capabilities, but also was willing to commit to eppraisals.com's aggressive schedule, was a priority.

Vendor Selection

King made a conscious decision not to approach the larger consulting firms, and instead created a short list of companies that specialize in internet-based development, including Organic, Razorfish, Sapient and Lante. King felt that these companies were more likely to understand the needs of a dotcom startup, would be more flexible and nimble, and would have a more complete range of the appropriate skill sets to meet the requirements of a web design and development project. Knowing that the development process would be highly dynamic, King also felt face-to-face interaction was critical.

Lante Corporation was selected largely because of its core capabilities and focus on speed, but other factors were included. For example, the company strictly adhered to the RFP from Hindman and King, unlike another vendor on the short list who tried to sell them an entire digital strategy and whose arrogant attitude was a major reason for being rejected. Lante was also able to work well with Wolff-Olins, a U.K.-based firm that eppraisals.com had retained to develop its branding and visual design strategy. Lastly, like eppraisals.com, Lante is located in Chicago.

Establishing the Engagement Process

Lante's challenge was to design and build the three websites (i.e. collector, expert and administrative), the back-end database of customers, and methods to access information, authenticate data, create a means for the community of experts to interact, and manage the distribution of work to them. Lante also provided a personalization capability to the site for users to keep a portfolio of their items. Furthermore, Lante's solution also handled scalability issues related to data management and other elements of the technical architecture. Essentially, Lante did the full systems design and lifecycle development process for the web-based B2C and B2B business.

The eppraisals.com team realized there were many different opportunities for business development. However, rather than get distracted by the multiple opportunities, the team focused on key requirements, ensuring that the project was manageable and the result effective within the time and budget. This clear view was critical for both the service provider and the client in order to successfully execute the project.

Vendor Services and Value of Solution Delivered

Speedy deployment of a quality website was eppraisals.com's highest order requirement. By the time the work was to begin, three vacation periods loomed - Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the 2000 celebrations. However, Lante held to its promise and met the demanding schedule, which impressed Hindman and her entire staff.

Citing other positive aspects of the engagement with Lante, Mr. King said that Lante was extremely easy to work with. Issues arose, as in any significant or complex project. One involved some dissatisfaction on the part of eppraisals.com with the implementation of the website visual design - they felt that it could have been better. The root cause of this was that top-end design personnel were not on the team. However, the overall implementation was good and viewed as successful. To date, the site has not experienced any downtime.

Eppraisals.com will work with Lante again on the second and larger phase of the project. Lante listened to their concerns, and Lante's customer-centric approach won them the work. For this second phase, designers absent from the first phase will join the same team that created the initial website, along with other, more senior, personnel. This meant continuity of the development team, an important issue as the business model learning curve was largely behind them. King is confident that Lante can fulfill its second engagement commitments.

eppraisals.com will continue its relationship with Lante for the foreseeable future although it is building up its internal team of expertise to maintain and eventually develop the website and backend solutions. They anticipate adding four new web developers to their current staff of four (2 Development/ 2 Content). Eppraisals.com currently has 45 employees and is growing rapidly.

Despite the presence of an IT department, the changing world of the Internet will always create opportunities for service providers to supply specialized skills and continue their relationships with their clients.

Vendor Recommendations:

  • Lante understood that key customer requirements were speed and flexibility, and responded appropriately to both. This formed the basis for a solid relationship that led to additional business.

  • Listen to your customers when they indicate they aren't interested in certain products or services you offer. Remember that one prospective vendor lost out due to their authoritarian approach in pushing their strategic services offering.

  • Speed is consistently a top-tier user requirement; do you have the ability to deliver fast?

  • Be aware of, and continually monitor, customer expectations in all aspects of an engagement. Had Lante sensed eppraisals.com's dissatisfaction with some of the design work earlier, they could have made adjustments more quickly.

  • Ensure your client has a clear vision prior to execution, particularly if time and budget are a major concern. A client engagement that lacks a clear vision of the capabilities the e-business is to deliver can be expected to result in complications, delays and budget creep. Clear communication of the goals is essential.

  • As the relationship continues, expect your client to build up its own internal capabilities and your role to decline. However, as the client looks to the future, a good relationship should assist you in securing the re-tooling and specialized applications business.

User Recommendations:

  • Always ask for the credentials of prospective vendor personnel who are key to your project and obtain a firm commitment as to their participation prior to finalizing a contract.

  • Continually monitor all critical areas of your project and voice concerns early and often.

  • Provide full-time project management in-house as the vendor project manager's counterpart.

  • Building up internal expertise can lower your long-term costs. You can take advantage of the service provider as an educational route for your key personnel.

  • The management team must have industry experience and be focused on the requirements of the core business needs prior to selecting and executing a project: this gives a clear development path to the service provider.

  • Raising equity is obviously a great deal easier if you have a public figure and recognized authority within your industry on-board. For the investor, knowing that a successful industry expert with a clear vision and understanding of the business goal is a key member of the management team provides the additional ensurance for a potentially successful venture.

Glossary of Terms:

DBSP - Digital Business Service Provider. A Service provider who assists clients in building new businesses and adding capabilities to existing businesses in the digital medium.

 
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