These are tough times for chambers of commerce. It's always been difficult to show dues-paying members they're getting a return on their investment. And now online social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook are rapidly encroaching on chamber business.
But chambers won't cede their turf without a fight. That's why D.J. Muller, 42, has been able to build a fast-growing company replicating locally what the Internet giants do best.
His Avon-based IT firm WebLink International Inc. provides management software to chambers of commerce, visitors' and convention bureaus, and other membership organizations. In June, WebLink raised $3.5 million from venture capitalists.
"We want to enable chambers and convention and visitors' bureaus to use new technology to protect what they're already doing, or their relevance will go away," he said.
Muller founded WebLink in 1996, but didn't immediately strike on his current business model. At first, he wrote database, directory and calendar software for churches. As his clientele expanded into chambers, he began creating code to support their billing, event management, financial reporting, social networking for membership, and e-commerce.
Eventually, WebLink began packaging its modules together as a seamless all-inone solution for chamber software needs. That's when the business really took off. It now has 420 customers, 40 employees and $4.5 million in annual revenue.
The software costs $10,000 to $250,000, depending on the scope of its installation. Muller said the company had been breaking even as it grew revenue 35 percent annually before it approached venture capitalists.
"We help chambers maintain and grow their influence using a local technology," Muller said. "They know they have to do something to respond to [Internet giants] that are trying to drive that local influence and take it away from them."
For example, Muller said, a local convention and visitors' bureau could use WebLink's software to track exactly how much of the bureau's Internet traffic leads to room bookings. Previously, it was difficult for bureaus to give concrete evidence that becoming a member would pay off.
The Greater Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce started using WebLink's system about a year ago to help with customer-relationship management, but quickly learned it could do much more, said Shannon McNett-Silcox, its vice president of member relations.
She's particularly impressed with WebLink's ability to pinpoint how much traffic has visited the Fort Wayne Chamber's Web site, and, as a result, how many chamber events members attended.
Statistics like that go a long way toward proving to the Fort Wayne Chamber's 1,900 members that their dues are well spent, she said.
"Things are now tracked, and we can present them to our membership. It's just a huge tool for us," she said. "WebLink understands what chambers need, and they have the whole package ready to go."
Until recently, WebLink grew entirely via word-of-mouth from customers like McNett-Silcox. Muller plans to use the money he raised from Cincinnati-based Blue Chip Venture Co., Carmel-based Spring Mill Ventures and the local virtual angel investor network the HALO Group to expand sales and marketing.
Investor Don Aquilano, a Blue Chip partner, led WebLink's $3.5 million investment deal and became the company's chairman. Spring Mill partner David Mann also joined the board, as did Scott Webber, chairman and CEO of locally based AutoBase Inc.
Aquilano said investors' interest increased dramatically during due diligence when they began talking to WebLink's customers, who were thrilled with the software and WebLink's service.
"Anytime you find a company that has seen a need in a market while servicing it, then created a better solution, and then won a significant amount of customers who are delighted and telling others about it, we get very interested very fast," he said.
Aquilano is steering WebLink to deliver its software as a service, so customers can receive it on a flat subscription basis and avoid the high initial costs of a license deal.
He said there are 7,000 to 8,000 chambers of commerce in the United States, and far more membership-based organizations. It is a territory no other software maker is attempting to corner, he said, so WebLink should be able to rapidly expand market share.
"The beauty of this is that the product is very robust and very comprehensive," Aquilano said. "And the customers are driving much of the pipeline."