Phil Davis has a new office. In the beginning, he was never sure if he’d have his own desk, let alone an office to himself. There was a time when even his title was in questionno one seemed to know how to describe what he did for a living. But a year’s hard work didn’t go unnoticed, and now he has a title: interactive marketing coordinator for Gibson Guitar. The title is right there, on his brand-new business cardsalong with a freshly designed corporate logo.
But before the logos, cards and titles, there was a dreamone that grew from an idea so utterly simple that it seemed to merit little attention at first. It began a little over a year ago, with the birth of an upstart media form known only as the Web. At the time, it held enormous potential but offered precious little in the way of actual productivity.
It also seemed to have little to do with the way Gibson sold its guitars. After securing a little extra equipment and part-time help from college students, a system programmer named Jay Welshofer decided to change that. During the daytime, he worked in inventory control, but, at night, creating a Web site became his top priority.
One of the first college kids he hired was Davis. “We were the very first guitar manufacturer on the Web,” Davis notes with pride. “We created the Web site from scratch, really. It’s great to be able to build something like that.”
Toward the beginning of the project, these college kids found themselves in a tough position: They were dreaming of big ideas in a place that wasn’t sure about dreams. Company executives, while finding the project worthwhile, were still unclear about the direction in which the Web was destined to lead the Gibson operation. In those early days, the students, dubbing themselves the “Gibson Webguys,” were forced to make sacrifices.
“We started out sharing an office with Gibson’s historian,” Davis recalls somewhat dreamily. “There weren’t even enough computers to go around. We had about four people working part time; for the longest time, we had only three computers."
About that time, the chief architect of the projectWelshoferleft the company to take another job. The task of pulling together the rough-and-tumble group of college hackers fell to employee Michael Lawson.
“I’m not a programmer,” Lawson admits. “In fact, at the time, I was a marketing guy. But what I felt I was able to bring to these guys in the beginning was a sense of direction.”
Up until his appointment as the steward of the Web project, Lawson had been involved in a wildly successful Gibson-run forum on one of the world’s largest online services, CompuServe. The service, which is still in operation today, attracts hundreds of thousands of people each year.
Under Lawson’s guidance, Davis and the other programmers began to craft a finely honed Web site. The look began to change: Graphics became clearer and sharper, better indexes were added, and the amount of information available began to grow. Gibson began to outpace its competitorsincluding Fender, whose Web site seemed like little more than a canned response to Gibson’s site.
All the while, company officials watched the project with real interest. From a marketing standpoint, it accomplished what thousands of press releases could not accomplish: It got the message out, and it got it out quite successfully to the right crowd, up-and-coming musicians. Averaging around 40,000 accesses per day, Gibson began to see its Web site as not merely a public-relations stunt but a new market in its own right.
In a move that would have been unthinkable just a year earlier, Gibson Worldwide Net Services was born, developing, in 17 months, from an understaffed back-room operation to a full corporate division. Upgrades to computer equipment would be needed; the company budgeted for those. Also, Lawson was told to prepare his troops for a move. An office building with a warehouse was forthcoming.
“They told me that we’d need a warehouse, if we were going to start selling anything on the Internet. I was shocked,” laughs Lawson. “I was wondering how I was going to break the news to the guys.”
In 100 years of operation, Gibson has played only one role in the guitar businessthe role of manufacturer. The selling of the product was formerly left to other companiesmusic dealers in particular. The decision to start selling electronically was unprecedented in the company’s history, but Lawson found it enticing.
“For years, Gibson has been in the business of cutting down trees, making them into guitars and selling them. The Web site is just another way to help us accomplish our mission, which is to sell guitars.”
The change shocked Davis and his staff as well. For months, they had been promised a new office, but they had almost given up hope. Even now, long after the move, reality is beginning to sink in.
“It all happened when I was sweeping the place up,” Davis recalls. “I was cleaning and walking around wondering if this was really happening. Now I’m starting to believe.”
The team has hit the ground running. A month after the move, the warehouse isn’t empty. It’s beginning to fill up with instruments of all shapes and sizes, each one waiting for a buyer. They will sell at a price just below list price to avoid conflicting with any of the company’s dealersbut Lawson is sure they will sell.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s a little more expensive [than our dealers]. The fact that you can search our inventory yourself, place the order yourself and have a guitar the next day will bring people around. It’s only a matter of time before this becomes the way people prefer to buy.
“In the future, I see Gibson expanding this Web site, offering multimedia guitar lessons, becoming the main source for musicians on the Internet. And it will happen. It’s just too simple.”
Sitting in his new office, Phil Davis agrees. “Gibson has put a lot of money down on us, and we’re going to make this the best Web site we can. We’ve come really far in a short time.” So far, in fact, that you can now buy a guitar in the online store. It’s up and running.
And Phil Davis has an office to clean.
Help When You Need It
Own a business and looking for the expertise to put it on the Web? Nashville is home to a number of companies that specialize in building online information centers and storefronts for clients of all sizes.
Bytes of Knowledge, Inc. 383-9005
Creative Syndicate 371-0887
The Edge 726-8700, email@example.com.
Lightbulb, INK firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nashville.Net (Telalink) 321-9100
Tennessee Web, Inc email@example.com.
TransWorld Online firstname.lastname@example.org.
Worldwide Network Services 831-2262
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