Fortune Small Business, 2000
Can services like massage sell on the Web? Peter Belvin is betting on it.
by Chris Sandlund
Peddling a million books, toys, or computers, on the Net is pretty straightforward. You build a Website, link it to a database that lets customers place orders, find a way to fulfill requests, and create a system for patrons to track deliveries and make returns. But what if you don’t sell a product? Can you sell services by the hour online?
Peter Belvin, president and CEO of Stress Recess Inc. in Atlanta, Ga., is counting on it. He’s got plans to launch a business-to-business Website in early 2000 that will let his massage company’s corporate customers, such as Coca Cola Corp. and Georgia Pacific, book time for their employees over the Web. All they will need to do to reserve his physical therapists, he says, is have their human resources departments fill out a form online.
If Belvin’s relatively simple business model succeeds, it could become an example for other entrepreneurs in service fields to follow. So far, he’s shown a knack for using technology to his best advantage. He has, for instance, kept his operating costs to a minimum by building Stress Recess without a central office and having all employees work from home; everyone stays connected using cell phones, pagers, and PalmPilots. Of course, this requires a responsible staff. Belvin personally screens applicants (“We make sure that no one has nose rings,” he says) and checks their references. “Our product is our group of physical therapists,” he says. “I had to interview over 300 therapists to get 63.”
To guarantee that the firm delivers the kind of steady quality that builds customer loyalty, Belvin and COO Devorah Slavin have cross trained staffers to substitute for each other a pinch. When one massage therapist recently got a flat tire on the way to an appointment, for example, Belvin dispatched another, who arrived on time. And by offering consistent pricing — the price for a 20-minute massage ranges from $20 to $25, depending on the volume of business from the client — Stress Recess has created a product that it can list for sale on the Web like any other item, Knight adds. So far, Stress Recess has seen steady growth. The three-year-old company, which currently logs $250,000 in annual revenue, projects sales between $500,000 and $1 million in 2000.
Leah Knight, a principal analyst at The Gartner Group, a technology consulting firm headquartered in New York City, thinks Belvin is onto something. Although she has seen other human resource services migrate to the Web, she says she has never encountered a massage firm using the business-to-business model online before. “The key is to convert a service into a readily purchased product,” she says. “If you look at services such as massage,” she says, “you can `productize’ them much better than a high-end business consulting service from someone like McKinsey.”
To make sure Stress Recess is prepared to handle any increase in orders that come from the Web, Belvin is already contracting therapists in cities including New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Ft. Lauderdale. He’s also building the company’s brand identity. All employees must dress in matching sports shirts bearing his corporate logo — something that’s common among employees at fast food franchises but not at massage businesses. “I’ve had therapists tell me that they’ve walked across a parking lot and had people recognize them as working for the company that gives massages at company X,” he says. That’s enough to keep him happy. “For the last four years,” he says, “I’ve woken up with a smile on my face.”