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No Longer Monk e-Business…

7 Sep, 2004 By: Aaron Shea imageSource

No Longer Monk e-Business…

There is a lot this chaotic world can learn from monks. For
instance, how to live a peaceful existence or how to be selfless, humane and
giving or, OF COURSE, how to make millions in annual revenues through an online
imaging supplies website.

Naturally, the final example may not be typical of all of
those who have taken a vow of poverty. But, then again, it is unlikely that most
monks have the business savvy of Father Bernard McCoy, the CEO and brains behind
the marvel that is
, an e-commerce imaging products store that offers inkjet
cartridges and remanufactured and new compatible toner cartridges at marked-down

Fr. Bernard created the business with no knowledge of
imaging supplies and no intentions of opening a retail location. Yet, he has
struck online gold with his website. Most of you undoubtedly already have a
website, but is it attracting enough attention? Fr. Bernard offers some insight
into improving your online presence and positioning your website for success.

A Simple Beginning

As one of a hand full ofmonks living in the Cistercian
Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank in rural Wisconsin, Fr. Bernard was placed in
charge of seeking out a business venture that would not only provide the monks
at the monastery with life’s bare necessities, but provide money for charitable
causes as well. A couple of years ago Fr. Bernard came up with the idea to sell
remanufactured toner cartridges after his personal search for reasonably priced
merchandise came up empty.

“I looked around and thought the cartridges were way too
expensive. I knew there had to be a better way [to purchase less expensive]
black dust and squirts of ink,” Fr. Bernard recalled.

The 37-year-old North Carolina-native did some online
surfing and discovered that there were several ways to start up an e-commerce
imaging supplies business of his own. The possibility of running an online
website was particularly appealing to Fr. Bernard due to the simple and somewhat
isolated lifestyle of a monk.

“Our lives are at home. We spend four hours a day in
prayer. We don’t want to have a retail store and we don’t want to go out and do
door-to-door sales. We don’t want that kind of involvement because part of our
lives is meant to be quiet and a little removed,” explained Fr. Bernard, who
initially, along with a couple of other monks at the abbey, remanufactured the
cartridges themselves, but the demand became too great and they began to
outsource the work.

“That was somewhat determinative of doing an e-commerce
business,” he said. “That kept us away from a total public presence. So we
decided we would go with an online presence.” And the LaserMonks’ website has
created an online presence unlike any other in the imaging supplies business.

Achieving Online Success

In 2002, the company’s inaugural year, the business
generated a mere $2,000 in revenue, which equaled its start up costs. In 2003,
revenues reached $500,000. This year, Fr. Bernard estimates that the company
will pull in anywhere from $2.5-$3 million in revenues.

“Not bad for a bunch of poor monks,” Fr. Bernard quipped.

Although a blitz of media attention, prices that are 20-70
percent lower than national retailers—something Fr. Bernard readily admits is
not out of the ordinary for an online imaging products supplier—and the pure
oddity of the company’s story have been a factor in its success, the
entrepreneurial-minded monk knew that a high-quality website that was
interesting and easy to navigate would be a necessity.

With the help of former imaging supplies business owners
Cindy Griffith and Sarah Caniglia, who showed the monks the ropes of the
business and now handle day-to-day management of LaserMonks, Fr. Bernard has
created a website that currently generates 70 percent of the company’s hundreds of
daily supply orders.

“Online, if you design a decent site, everyone is equal,”
Fr. Bernard said. “Our site can be just as good as IBM’s or any other companies.
It’s just a matter of coming up with a decent site and backing it up with
whatever it is you are selling. You can have a professional presence online and
do a good business right out of your own home.”

Fr. Bernard said the basics of a good e-commerce website include:

Keeping the site reasonably clean  

“You can have a lot of data, but you shouldn’t have too
many conflicting colors. You should have a basic color scheme that includes two
or three colors that are based on your logo.”

1. Having plenty of white space

“You can notice the difference in professional, enterprise
level sites versus sites that are home sites. Unprofessional sites tend to have
lots of colors, lots of stuff crammed in and lots of things going on—flashy
things and jumpy things. Most professional sites don’t want that. Maybe have one
banner moving across the top, but don’t do more. It cheapens the site.”

2. Easy navigation

“People need to think about someone who just arrived at
their website. They know nothing about you. They need to know who you are, what
you sell and how to find what they need.”

Fr. Bernard has also added some personal touches to the
website. The site offers an invitation for prayer requests, phrases and
quotations that encourage a moment of reflection, a feature cartoon produced by
the monastery’s superior, Fr. Robert, and highlights of the various ways that
LaserMonks and the monks of the abbey have helped the less fortunate through

But he also knows the business world is survival of the
fittest and you have to have an edge on the competition. He said one way to gain
an advantage is through search engines.

“Those are extremely important if you are looking at the
consumer,” he said. “That is where most of the customer base will come from. We
have several marketing focuses and one of those we decided to put money into was
search engine optimization. How you rank in a search [Google, etc.] is going to
determine who is going to come to you. What you need to try and do is get
yourself as high as possible up there.”

In order to accomplish a good position in a search engine,
Fr. Bernard said a business can do the following:

1. Hire a search engine optimization company

“The company we went with is probably the best in the
industry, SEO, Search Engine Optimization Inc. We’ve put in about $20,000 into
it just to get our ranking up. They did some design work on the site to
rearrange things better because search engines look at sites in various ways.
They also do what is called back end pages that no one really sees, but the
search engines do. There are ways of tweaking some of the coding to make them
more popular. These things are not cheap, I will be very honest. We have to be
as sly as serpents to make the business successful, even if that includes
spending money where it needs to be spent in order to make more.”

2. Free online advice

“There are sites online where you can go to get free
advice. They’ll show you how to tweak your site. These things do help, but
depending on the market, such as inkjets or toner cartridges, which are so big,
you’re probably not going to have a whole lot of success unless you spend a
whole lot of money.”

3. Google

“Another angle, which we did find successful, is sponsored
links [advertisements] on Google. Anyone can afford to put those up. Google
allows you to bid where your ad will be placed on the right side of the Google
page. You bid on how much you want to pay per click. It’s an affordable way to
get [a high ranking in a search engine]. We would spend about $1,000 a month and
we would be in the top five or six links under toner cartridges. It was worth it
because in our industry if you get that first sale and the consumer] likes you,
they will come back. You just have to get them to your site the first time. In
that case, it is a very effective and ultimately inexpensive advertising
expense. If it brings you a customer, it has been worth it.”

Thus far, these techniques have worked well for
LaserMonks.com, which
Fr. Bernard said will have expanded product offerings and will be upgraded in
the near future. The company’s architect sees an endless amount of opportunities
in the industry.

“I don’t care if you are in a metro area or residential
area, every single building you drive past is more than likely going to have a
printer in it and that means everyone I drive past is my potential customer,” he
said. “It’s an enormous industry, but right now it is mainly controlled by the
big Goliaths. I think they do a good job at what they do, but I think we can do
better and charge less.”

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