The page boys

The young minds behind Toronto’s hottest Web design companies are lousy showmen, but never mind. They can teach your page to do tricks your competitors can only dream about.

Canadian Business Technology, Fall, 1996  

Aziz Hurzook, one of the three people who started the Web site development company Caught in the Web Inc., wants to correct a myth about the firm’s modest roots. “We weren’t a one-basement operation,” says Hurzook, 22. “We were a multi-basement operation.” A year ago Hurzook and Caught in the Web cofounder Tom Mathai, 21, both had day jobs with their local school districts. “I had the only Mac,” says Hurzook, “so I did the design. Tom had the only fax machine.” The pair then hooked up with Bobby John, 23, a computer engineer.


Their first professional effort, a no-charge Web site for Toronto funk-and-soul band Bass Is Base led to deals with A&M Records Inc. and, eventually, Warner Music Canada Ltd. The trio has since landed contracts with IBM Corp., the law firm Borden & Elliot and Purolator Courier Ltd.


Only in the hyped and hyper world of Web design would companies such as these hire people in their early 20s for anything other than mailroom clerks or human spittoons. What gave Caught in the Web its edge on its equally young competition? Its page for Purolator offers a few clues. The courier company’s existing Web page was dull and text-heavy, especially when compared with that of its rival, Federal Express Canada Ltd. Thirteen finalists contended for the job of building Purolator’s new site. Some brought squads of more than a dozen people armed with every kind of visual aid. Caught in the Web, the last to be interviewed, had nothing. “We didn’t show them printouts, mockups or anything like that. We told them what their site could offer if it was done right,” says Hurzook.


“Poor Aziz looked like he was wearing his older brother’s jacket,” says Purolator’s marketing manager Deborah Gray. “But the minute they spoke, they were just awesome.”


The reconstructed Purolator site features subtly changing graphics and access to a number of services, including free downloadable copies of Purolink, the company’s shipping software. There are step-by-step instructions for filling out waybills and a market-survey questionnaire. Customers can use the company’s proprietary tracking system to follow their packages. The graphics match Purolator’s advertising, all on a white background-at least partly to distinguish it from FedEx’s black. Both sites look slick. But FedEx’s will make you wait if you’re running older software; Purolator’s site was constructed for compatibility with both pokier machinery and the latest hot-rod systems.


“We didn’t want the site so extremely fun and goofy that people surfed to it just because it was cool,” says Gray. “We also wanted customers.” So far it’s working: the revamped Purolator site gets five times as many hits as its predecessor.


One of the principles behind Caught in the Web’s designs is that each site needs at least one new information feature to keep drawing in repeat visitors. For its Warner Music site, 30-second audio clips of songs by Warner artists are changed regularly; for accountants Doane Raymond, analysis of the federal budget. (Caught in the Web got the budget information on disk at 6:30 a.m.; it was up on Doane Raymond’s site within minutes.)


For Purolator, Caught in the Web is using Microsoft Corp. development tools to build a drop box locator. Type in your location and a map will emerge on the screen, showing you the location of the nearest Purolator drop box. “That’s how we’re beginning to sell our sites,” says Mathai. “Phase 2 Web sites, we call them. Phase 1 is . . . “  “ . . . simple presence. Just for the sake of being there,” says Hurzook, picking up on his partner’s corporate strategy. “Phase 2 is more like delivery of services.”


What is Phase 3 going to be? Not even Caught in the Web’s wizards claim to know that. “This industry is moving so fast, it makes the PC business look slow,” Hurzook says. With sales expected to reach $1 million this year, Caught in the Web is no longer a power trio. The company, which now employs 15, has outgrown its offices for the second time this year and has alliances with Time Warner Inc. and Microsoft. For Borden & Elliot, it’s required working on a new intranet feature that will put the law firm’s cases on the Web. Dealing with a law firm has some cultural adjustments, though, Hurzook admits: “Our lawyer said, ‘You’re going to meet the chief operating officer. Wear some suits, guys.’”