Old-timer Organic Online continues to blaze trails

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Despite its seeming contradiction in terms, Organic Online lives up to its name.

"Organic," as in a natural, creative element in the evolution of the Web. "Online" as in a soundly engineered component of the technical infrastructure.

Born in 1993, "when most companies didn't know how to plug in a server," as President-Chief Operating Officer Michael Hudes put it, the company has grown into one of the most prominent interactive design companies in the country.

Its design and programming for household-name clients such as Harley-Davidson, Levi Strauss & Co. and McDonald's Corp. has helped legitimize the Web as a consumer brand medium. It recently designed and placed an Internet ad campaign for Toys "R" Us and built a site for Kinko's Corp.


Its programming department also helped devise solutions for some of the Internet's early technical shortcomings, such as the development of the shareware server, Apache, which helped bring the Net to the mainstream. It also founded and spun off Accrue, a software company that analyzes Web traffic patterns.

Thanks to an investment early last year from the Omnicom Group, the company has slightly loosened its grips on its bootstraps and is expanding rapidly. The staff numbers 85 in San Francisco and is nearing 50 in the new New York office, with plans for a presence in Europe and Asia later this year. But the company's roots as a startup remain clearly evident.

The San Francisco headquarters is stereotypical of the many Web factories that populate the warehouses of the city's "Multi-media Gulch" district. Legions of programmers, designers, media buyers and other employees work desk by desk in the cavernous loft space, as construction workers bang and drill doing office renovations.

Mr. Hudes is yang to founder and CEO Jonathan Nelson's yin. Mr. Hudes, 37, joined the company two years ago to instill the creative army with day-to-day business disciplines. With 14 years of senior management experience in advertising and direct marketing at the likes of Ketchum and D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, New York, Mr. Hudes had most recently led the marketing team at da Vinci Time & Space, an ill-fated inter-active TV startup, before joining Organic.


"When I came, I made it clear to people here that we were first and foremost a professional services company," he said.

He eagerly sketches an organizational chart on a legal pad, illustrating the range of the company's services, from Web hosting to business strategy to media placement to guerrilla online marketing and and other services.

"If your entire business is just interactive design, you're never going to be a big business," he said.


By contrast, Mr. Nelson, 30, waxed philosophical about the Internet as a marketing medium and his vision of Organic's role therein. It's a vision he's been recasting since launching the company at age 25, with only a short career in music engineering to guide him.


"I don't think there are any truisms in marketing," he said. "Brands evolve. People evolve. Culture evolves. And marketing should ride on those coattails. . . . What Organic is, is a catalyst. It's a bridge between brands and audience."

Mr. Hudes, with an eye on the bottom line, says the future for the company lies in the booming trend of electronic commerce.

"In 1998, we are seeing our clients rising to meet the need for the expertise we've been creating all along," he said of the company's broad range of technical and creative services.


For Mr. Nelson's part, the road to that commercial end lies in the Web's capacity to bridge the brands with their consumers. "How to treat as many people as individually as possible: that's the philosophy of Organic."

Copyright March 1998, Crain Communications Inc.

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