'My firm's online, but I am real. Honest...'

Setting up an online company can reap rewards - but it has to be properly planned, says Hazel Davis
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The Independent Online

There are a few among us who would balk at the idea of using a company that exists entirely online. We have enough problems dealing with those based outside the UK, let alone floating around in cyberspace.

But, says the PR guru Arlo Guthrie, this is an old-fashioned view - one that will change if he and his company have anything to do with it. Guthrie runs www.consulttheguru.com, which he believes is the first completely online PR and marketing consultancy. And so far it seems to be a hit.

"I think the slightly divorced nature of consulting via the internet gives us a real advantage, a clarity of thinking," Guthrie says. "When businesses use consulttheguru.com, we're thinking of one thing and one thing only: how best to answer the brief you've put in front of us. We are not diverted by any other issue, such as whether or not you'll like us personally, whether we'll get to the meeting on time, or whether the overhead projector will work with the laptop."

Guthrie believes there is no real difference from how he does business as most companies have online information requests anyway.

"Businesses complete an online briefing form in which they tell us about their product or service, outline their marketing objectives and advise us of their available budgets," he says.

"After they've paid the consultation fee, their brief is submitted to a team of very experienced creative marketers who have worked on some of the world's best-known brands."

And there's none of that worrying about whether your request has got lost in the ether, as the company guarantees a three-day response. "We return with a report in which we outline the 'big idea' - the single most attention-grabbing and engaging way we can think of to market your product on the given budget," Guthrie says.

Consulttheguru.com isn't just another company jumping on the cyberspace bandwagon. Guthrie believes there are myriad reasons why setting up an online company is a good idea. "It's vastly more time- and cost-effective than using a traditional marketing consultant or agency," he says. "I'm quite sure that more 'pure' consultancies - i.e. those that don't actually execute the advice they give - will move online. Those that don't will surely fall by the wayside. But it is very early days yet."

Guthrie, a winner of the Grand Prix des Relations Presse Relations Publique, runs consulttheguru.com with Lisa ter Haar, a former board director at Hill and Knowlton, one of the world's largest marketing communications companies; Richard Simpson, a former journalist; and Nigel Kennedy, an internet communications specialist. Because of its low overheads the company is able to offer high-quality PR services at a fraction of the cost of "land-based" companies.

It's worth bearing in mind that an online business, like any other, needs careful preparation and planning. Says Guthrie: "True or not, there's a perception that the internet represents an opportunity to make a fast buck. The reality is that it's no different to running an offline business." So many factors can make a business fail, so testing is crucial, says Guthrie. "The wonderful thing about the internet is that you can test things, see the result and change them immediately."

Graham Jones, an internet entrepreneur and e-business expert, agrees. There is plenty of money to be made online, he says; indeed, he knows several people who have become millionaires after setting up websites. But the difference between these successful online entrepreneurs and the people who would like to be like them, is that those who succeed plan everything in detail, he says.

"They don't just set up a website and hope. In the same way that a successful business has a plan, anyone setting up an e-business needs meticulous planning. I meet several people who want to earn money online, or want to become rich, making money while they sleep, thanks to the internet. But few of them achieve what they dream about because their strategy is based on hope, rather than any kind of plan."

The internet is, of course, the most powerful research tool there is, according to Guthrie. "And, perhaps most life-enhancingly, it allows me to perform my job from wherever I want, whenever I want."


A guru's tips

"Canadian research shows that users will form an opinion about your website in one-twentieth of a second. It's not long to make an impression, so make sure it's a good one." Arlo Guthrie

Make sure that you have a reliable broadband connection with a high bandwidth.

Your website must have a user-friendly domain name, and contact details must be clear. A site with no obvious contact details can be a turn-off for a potential client.

Ensure you can deliver the promised services easily and promptly before committing to a timeframe.

A business plan is vital.