In a small town in the Midwest, someone is trying to sell auto parts out of his garage. In New York, a multinational corporation is trying to reach customers from Melbourne to Milan. And both are turning to electronic commerce (e-commerce) to reach their goals. Its kind of weird, said R. A. Burrell, CPA. E-commerce cuts across all lines. Its not industry-specific and its not size-specific. Burrell is cofounder of Cyberline, a three-year-old company that doesnt just design sites, it programs them. It provides the complex programming codeswhich youll never seenecessary for creating and managing online catalogs and order forms. Burrell has started to turn the Internet into a realistic vendor alternative by combining business knowledge with programming skills.
The Programs the Thing
When we started, people came to us with a product and just wanted essentially online ads, said Burrell. These jobs required relatively simple HTML programming skills, and today provide only a small part of the companys overall revenues. Increasingly, clients need someone to create an electronic shopping cart or to automate an existing process through a Web site, tasks requiring sophisticated programs, which Cyberline can provide. Burrell said that all companies have some type of information flowtheir accounting processes receive documentation, which they have to process, for example. These information flowsproducts, costs and invoice datesneed to be replicated in a database. Cyberline has to organize the information that needs to be tracked, captured or manipulated. Solutions to this problem involve sophisticated languages such as Java, Visual Basic and C++, which are much more complex than the average Web designer can handle.
A relatively new service provided by Cyberline is an extranet product called the Online Project Manager. Now, with the Online Project Manager, a client can enter a secured corner of Cyberlines site and submit a work order for a changesuch as an updated product listingdirectly. Multiple steps have become one step. The client gets two big advantages: It can place a work order with an ordinary Web browser such as Internet Explorer or Navigator and it can return to the site periodically to check on the progress of the job it requested. Cyberline has a lot of partner clientsa CPA firm or an ad agency, for example, that has engaged Cyberline for one of its own clients. These partner clients now can track our work and feed information to their clients. An account executive can log on in midmeeting at any time at any place to see how Web-site alterations are going. The new system also helps Cyberline record hours worked and automates the invoice process.
Know Your Client
To accomplish these advanced tasks for a client, you have to really understand the clients business and the ratios of costs to benefits. Thats why a CPA is great at this type of work, said Burrell, who has adapted his own traditional skills for his new company. He got his start as a Big 6 auditor. He soon discovered most of its clients had automated their processes, or were about to, in a client/server environment. Because the Internet is built on a client/server model, changing my concentration just meant the equivalent of changing flavors of ice creamit was not a whole new situation. His auditing experience led to work in industry implementing a client/server system, giving him even more experience, before cofounding Cyberline.
Burrell emphasizes his ability to combine both his CPA and technology skills, which makes Cyberline an ideal partner for accounting firms in certain engagements. You have technically proficient CPAs performing an engagement for a client heavily involved in the Internet. These CPAs realize they need IT consulting help. A general consultant might be able to do the job but would not notice additional internal control work the CPAs might be able to offer a client. Being a CPA myself, I am able to identify this additional work and thus suggest additional consulting work for the firm.
New Ways of Doning Business
Of course, all of Cyberlines work is based on the publics willingness to accept online commerce as a way of doing business and on business owners willingness to explore new ways of selling. E-commerce involves issues of economics as well as issues of trust; Cyberline keeps an eye on both. For example, we believe e-commerce is not a replacement for the standard retail modelselling products in a store. It doesnt make a lot of sense to try to sell toilet paper through your Web site. But when you have complex vendorcustomer relationships, with multiple purchases and data to be transferred quickly, e-commerce can be tremendously powerful. Another advantage of the Web is its relatively low cost. In fact, Burrell thinks an economic downturn in the national economy as a whole might lead to a rapid growth in online commerce as entrepreneurs look for more efficient ways of selling products and services.
Security issues worry both customers and businesses; like many current and former auditors, Burrell is eagerly looking forward to the benefits of CPA WebTrust. He thinks it will have a positive effect on e-commerce. Theres no question that were going to recommend it to some of our clients. (Since Cyberline is a company, and not a CPA firm, it cannot itself perform WebTrust engagements.)
Pulling It Together
Cyberline uses its site to market itself heavily. Burrell and his partner, Internet programmer Jason Carr, posted lively biographies of themselves. The company provides a brief Web site planning guide, available even to nonclients, and detailed descriptions of the companys activities and its employees achievements. Cyberline links to its clients, even posting each companys logo. Proving Burrells statement that e-commerce is not industry-specific, the list includes a high-tech security company, a cattle rancher, several malls and real estate companies, a credit union and some NPOs.
To set up its online databases, Cyberline used a variety of products, including Microsofts Visual InterDev. It also used some older Unix programs. The overall design is simple, and except for text updates, Burrell said the site doesnt change much. Fueled in part by client accesses, the Cyberline Web site has recorded about 1.5 million hits in three years, averaging about 1,300 a day.
Behind the scenes is where the real Web site growth is. Cyberline discusses its plans for 1998: most of its new business services are very high-tech, but all are designed to allow the client to take care of its business while Cyberline takes care of the electronic back office. Says Burrell, These solutions are sometimes more advanced than our clients can manage by themselves. No problem; thats what we do.