March 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

The Past is Prologue

Steve Antisdel has big dreams for a tiny web site - just like before

Considering that in the last several years Stephen Antisdel has switched from selling furniture to work clothes over the Internet, it may seem surprising to hear him say: “Successful Internet sales ventures are built by people who really know their products and the industry in which they are selling.”

But Antisdel, co-founder of FurnitureFind.com and currently an investor in and COO of WorkingPerson.com, knows of what he speaks. At FurnitureFind.com, Antisdel had years of experience in the furniture industry before he and his partners took what had originally been a brochureware site for a furniture store in the South Bend, Ind., area and turned it into a nationwide Internet sales channel. Now at WorkingPerson.com, Antisdel relies on Eric Deniger, CEO, to know all about work clothes while Antisdel brings the Internet experience.

The unknown future

Deniger was running a family-owned local clothing company when he hired Antisdel last year as a consultant to help him turn his regional web site into a national sales channel. Within a year of coming on board as a consultant, Antisdel liked what he saw at WorkingPerson.com, invested in the company and became involved in the day-to-day operations.

But while knowing all about the latest in Internet technology and marketing techniques is important, it’s the product knowledge that Antisdel thinks is critical to success. “FurnitureFind.com survived the Internet bust when many of our competitors folded because we understood the product and what customers want in furniture,” Antisdel says. “We could explain the difference to a customer between buying a $1,000 dining room set and a $10,000 set. It’s the same now at WorkingPerson. Eric understands the product. He knows the vendors and he knows what his customers want and how to explain the product features in a way that is meaningful to them.”

Antisdel didn’t really know what he was getting into in 1996 when he set up a brochureware site for a Niles, Mich., furniture store that was founded by his uncles in the 1950s. He had planned for the site to be a means for local customers to view product offerings before they came to the store to buy. But even though he didn’t pay for referrals or use sophisticated search engines to bring customers to his virtual door, shoppers found him anyway. Shortly after opening the site, Antisdel started receiving e-mails and phone calls from customers outside of Michigan and Indiana who wanted to buy.

Selling out

So in 1997, he began selling furniture nationally via the Internet. To fund his venture, he received financing from Venture Capital of Austin, Texas. As the company grew, Antisdel found that starting it up and getting it off the ground were more interesting then running a mature company. So in 2003, he sold his interest in FurnitureFind.com to Venture Capital and he, his brother and another partner formed North Main Ventures to invest in other Internet-related companies, using the proceeds from the sale of FurnitureFind.com.

Then last year, Antisdel was hired as a consultant by the family that runs WorkingPerson.com. What was once a family-owned, one-store retailer had begun selling its products over the Internet, but had limited most sales to a 350-mile radius in Northeast Indiana and Western Michigan. But it wanted to go national.

WorkingPerson sells specialty clothing to working personnel, primarily construction workers, factory workers, utility linemen and health care professionals. The company estimates online sales last year of $2 million out of total sales of $3.3 million. The company has been experiencing rapid growth-in fact, online sales in 2005 were up nearly fivefold from 2004’s $430,000 while total sales were up 78% from $1.85 million. Antisdel says 2005 sales would have been stronger except for supply chain problems which forced the company to fulfill some December orders in January, delaying recognizing that revenue until 2006.

Uniforms are a small percentage of the sales with most of the sales coming from such apparel as jeans with special loops to hang tools, fire resistant clothing for welders and steel-toed shoes. “Any time a worker needs special clothing that is tailored for specific job-related functionality, we can provide it,” says Antisdel.

From the shoemobile to the web

“We have a broader selection than what you could find in a uniform shop, but more narrow and tighter focused than what you would find in a online sporting goods or tractor supply store.”

WorkingPerson has 60 employees across all sales channels. Taking such a business national would present new challenges to a company whose prior experience as a multi-channel retailer is selling work shoes off the back of a truck-known as the shoemobile-which sold in the parking lots of factories.

But moving a company from shoemobile sales to Internet sales is where Antisdel fits in. He brings a strong background in financing an Internet start-up and has an MBA from Leicester University in the United Kingdom. “He has a strong financial background and understands the important issues associated with financing an Internet venture,” says Eric Deniger.

And Deniger adds Antisdel has brought more than just financial knowledge-as a result of his experience with FurnitureFind.com. “He’s been invaluable in keeping us focused on what we need to be doing in the early stages,” Deniger says. “He keeps us focused on first things first and not getting too far ahead of ourselves. It has been a big help to partner with someone who has already been down this path.”

Additionally, Deniger says Antisdel already knows which software and other Internet services are most effective in getting the service running. “He knows what software to select so we don’t have to spend so much time checking out the various options and he has important relationships already established with all the important vendors,” Deniger says.

Still, there were things Antisdel had to learn about selling work clothes online. One is the importance of product descriptions. “We probably spend more time on product descriptions than other online retailers do,” he says. “We’re constantly working to explain our products’ functionality better because work clothes need more description than other clothes.”

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