Virtual Success

By Lori Johnston Photography by Lori Sax April 30, 2009

With the economy in shambles, experts anticipate a surge in virtual start-ups. The advantages are obvious. No money wasted on storefronts and office space. No large staffs. No daily commutes.

“With so many people being laid off right now, it’s an excellent opportunity,” says Marty Anderson, a faculty member at BabsonCollege in Massachusetts who studies online activity and teaches in the school’s ArthurM.Blank Center for Entrepreneurship.

In 2008, U.S. online retail sales grew to $141 billion, capturing 5 percent of all retail sales, according to Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research. It forecasts 2009 sales will rise to $156 billion, and a long-range projection shows online sales reaching $229 billion—8 percent of all U.S. retail sales—in 2013.

Data on the total number of virtual companies based in the U.S. and Florida aren’t available, partly because Anderson says it’s difficult to make a clear distinction between business models. Most virtual companies, he says, have some physical presence, from renting computer servers to warehousing merchandise. “ITunes and Google both look virtual,” he says, “but Google spends literally $2 billion per year on property, plant and equipment, and Amazon spends several hundred million at least.”

Going virtual, of course, means the ability to reach a national and international market with the click of a mouse. “It’s global and local at the same time,” Anderson says. But that constant access across all time zones can be a pitfall, with virtual entrepreneurs finding it sometimes difficult to balance work and personal life.

And then there’s the challenge of customer service. “Be ready to respond to people nicely, and don’t think it’s an easy job because customers call you all the time,” Anderson says. “If you don’t give good customer service, they’ll tell 300 million people in an online forum what a nasty person you are.”

The pluses and minuses aren’t lost on these three local e-companies.


Shoppers are spending hundreds of dollars at for discounted Prada, Dior, Burberry and other high-end shoes, bags and accessories.

The Sarasota-based online retailer of discounted imported Italian shoes and handbags started out as an import business three years ago when Italian-born Francesco Aretini, 41, moved to Sarasota with his wife, Deirdre. Aretini used to import luxury accessories and sell them to stores in Sarasota, Miami and Tampa. He began operating virtually in 2003, using his connections from growing up and working in Italy to obtain the merchandise directly from factories and outlets.

“We can obtain the item for a very nice price and from reliable sources,” he says. “We sell the items usually 30 percent, 40 percent off, sometimes even more, 50 or 60. They save a lot of money in buying bags from us than buying bags from directly in the store. It makes people confident to buy something because the price is lower.”

Aretini’s company was waiting this spring for a shipment of handbags to add to the site, and was developing another site devoted to watches. The company continues to sell wholesale.

Aretini estimates BagPoint USA sells 30 pairs of shoes and 20 bags a month to customers as far away as Hong Kong, London, Dubai, India, the Czech Republic, the Russian Federation and even Italy, as well as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The merchandise is housed at his Sarasota home, so he doesn’t have a warehouse. He would not disclose revenues.

“If I had a store in Sarasota, I would only be able to sell something to people in Sarasota, and of course, tourists. It’s also seasonal,” he says. “The nicest thing about having an online store is that you can get customers from all over the world.”

Of course, one downside is the possibility of being scammed by online buyers, typically outside the U.S. “There’s no way you can retrieve an item shipped out to a stolen credit card,” Aretini says. The company combats that by focusing on making credit card payments as secure as possible, using PayPal and

Successful online companies, Aretini emphasizes, must develop good reputations. That for him means ensuring that the products are genuine (he recommends buyers take the items to merchants for additional verification). He wants to give customers the same sense of security he seeks in his Internet shopping.

“I’m buying everything online,” he says.


Job board Telework International in Sarasota does business just like its users want to do—from home.

The site,, posts full-time and part-time positions that people can do from home for major corporations such as IBM, Microsoft, Dell and Aetna, as well as smaller businesses around the country.

New owner Chris Rodgers, who purchased the site from founder Maria Daly in March, plans to grow Telework International to include a few thousand jobs. Jobs will be available in accounting and finance, customer service, engineering, foreign language translation, legal, human resources, marketing and sales, and research and development.

“It’s shocking to know how many jobs are out there that are unfilled,” he says.

Positions will be added daily and remain on the board until the expiration date set by the company, or if one is not noted, for three weeks. Jobs range from clerical part-time work for $17 an hour to a $75,000-a-year engineering position. For most of the positions, pay is negotiable and not disclosed with the listings; some of the jobs are commission-based. Job seekers receive limited free access to Rodgers’ online board, followed by tiers of subscriptions, ranging from $6 a week to $90 a year.

Rodgers, 42, began working as a contractor with Daly a few months ago after he and his wife moved from Richmond, Va., to Sarasota for job opportunities. Daly, who started the site late last year, will remain with the company in a limited capacity, says Rodgers, who declined to disclose the purchase price.

This is Rodgers’ first foray into an online-only business; previously he worked in the construction industry. There’s no advertising, and no companies pay for job postings. All of Telework’s revenue comes from subscribers, which in March numbered a few hundred. Rodgers also is trying to build a site for subscribers in the United Kingdom.

“It’s just the right time for this company, [given] the situation the nation’s in, the economy’s in and the world’s in,” he says.

Subscription revenue is covering its main costs–paying himself and contractors. He thinks displaying ads and pop-ups would keep the site from being “pure.” “We’re not here to bilk the public of money, and we’re not here to make a ton of money,” he says.

The main benefit of having an online company is similar to companies that use workers from home: It keeps the overhead low, Rodgers says. He emphasizes that all the jobs are real, brought to the site by his four contractors who scour official company job boards, connect with people in HR departments and research the positions to ensure they are still available and legitimate.

At this point, only a feedback board provides an indication if people have landed jobs through Telework International. He is trying to determine how to track the site’s success “to know if we’re even making a dent in it.”

Like others these days, Rodgers relies on his BlackBerry and laptop and works out of his home. “This path outweighs all the careers I’ve had,” he says.


A year ago, Frank T. Gómez moved to Sarasota take a job with an engineering firm, only to discover that the job had evaporated.

He turned the disappointment into an opportunity. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute. I need to do what I love,’” he says.

Gómez was passionate about graphic design, and in his spare time would provide graphic design services, custom artwork and Web design to various clients. Launching was a logical move.

“The benefit for me is I don’t have the cost of having a bricks-and-mortar store, and I do have clients from out of town. I don’t have to have a physical presence in other cities,” says Gómez, 42.

He doesn’t ignore the value of face time, however. Most of his clients are in Southwest Florida, so he meets with his half-a-dozen consistent clients at least a couple of times a month. Others communicate with him via e-mail.

“One of the biggest things I do for marketing is still in-person contact through the telephone or networking physically in-person. I wish it wasn’t as necessary as it is because it still is very time consuming,” he says. “You cannot just rely on the Internet. You can’t just put up a Web site and hope you’ll get business.”

Gómez, who wouldn’t release sales revenue, admits “I’m still hungry,” but says business is growing with work for other start-up companies seeking brochures, logos, Web sites and promotional items. A common phrase he hears is, “I Googled you,” which emphasizes to him the value of being virtual.

One difficulty is finding work-life balance. Gómez, who works out of his Sarasota home, understands that he can’t afford to take several days off without checking his e-mail. But he takes some steps, such as disabling noises from his e-mail, so that there are no interruptions when he’s in the middle of a project, or taking personal time.

“When I’m intently working on something, I’ll close the e-mail all together,” he says.

Filed under
Show Comments