A feminine approach to Web design

Not only are more women heading up dotcom startups in the US, they are also running the niche companies that help many a Web site thrive.

Take Gretta Olten and Christine Woody. Four years ago, these two women founded Studio 180, a Web-design firm that counts Drugstore.com and Harvard Business School among its clients.

From its offices in a former packing plant outside Boston, Studio 180 builds Web sites that are as efficient as they are aesthetic.

The small firm now sees more than $500,000 in annual revenue, but it was slow in coming. The partners began their venture with less than $100 in the bank.

The two first met in 1995 at a Boston-based publishing company, where they both worked as graphic designers.

The duo soon began to realize they could do the same work for themselves as they were doing for a boss. So they decided to leave publishing and the corporate world.

"We'd go to lunch meetings three times a weeks and fantasize about what we wanted to do with our lives," Ms. Olten says. "We mentally prepared ourselves for about six months before leaving. Like Christine, I was not married at the time and had no commitments."

"I always knew I wanted to work for myself. I just didn't think it would be quite this soon," Ms. Woody says. "I had no kids, no mortgage, no commitments. It was a good time to take a risk. If it didn't work out, I could bounce back and get a job elsewhere."

After incorporating Studio 180 with a $100 deposit in a joint bank account, the two were fortunate to land their first client. A former co-worker helped them to land a $50,000 contract with Cybersmith, the Internet cafe and technology store.

The money was enough get Studio 180 was up and running.

In 1996, Cybersmith laid off about 40 employees. Many of them took jobs with successful companies such as Harvard Business School and AltaVista, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based search engine. These people remembered Studio 180's work on the Cybersmith Web site and began sending new projects their way.

It hasn't always been easy for Studio 180 to operate in a sector still dominated by men and large advertising and design firms.

"It is a challenge for them that they are young women in the profession and that can make it hard to present them," says Lauren Bigelow, who worked with the firm on the construction of Drugstore.com's Web site and now works for AltaVista from her Boston home. "But they are as good or better than some of the larger firms I've worked with."

Much of their competition comes from design-turned-Web-development firms, and large companies such as the Boston ad agency Hill Holiday.

Dan Jones, president of the Boston-based Atlantic Search Group, a headhunting firm for the accounting and finance sector, hired the pair to design a Web site that would resemble a brochure. Studio 180 was one of several companies interviewed for the job.

"Their age didn't shock me, and I didn't think much of the fact that they are women," says Mr. Jones. "I just saw two people who were easy to work with."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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