Working with a board of directors also proved a challenge for Heller who, as an entrepreneur, was used to implementing whatever ideas he could dream up. "I've always been able to call my own shots," Heller says. "Now, I work with other people's money and a board of directors. I think stuff up in my head but now I have to put it on paper and present it. That has been some of my most humbling experience, but my board says I'm getting better."
FoodUSA.com has remained private so far, which has benefited them in today's climate, Heller believes. "Today, investors are getting smarter. They understand what to look for. It got rid of the junk in the marketplace but it also tightened up the money for everyone." FoodUSA.com was going through its second round of financing this summer and may look toward merger and acquisition possibilities. "It's almost easier to get acquired than to do an IPO," Heller says. "IPOs are a lot of work."
Starting FoodUSA.com meant that some of the people who wouldn't listen to Heller before now take him seriously. "All of a sudden, I'm not a crazy guy anymore," Heller says. "I'm the same person but now I have a successful company going. But people look at you differently. The people that showed me the door before now say 'We should listen to this guy.'"
Heller says his family life is intact after starting a dot-com, although family vacations with his wife and 10- and 12-year-old children frequently revolve around locations where he has speaking engagements, and he totes a cell phone or laptop. Heller's social life is "nonexistent" but he does occasionally make it to the golf course with friends.
To others interested in starting dot-coms, Heller suggests starting a second round of funding as soon as they close on the first. "People are always squeamish about money and losing percentages of their company to an outside investor," he says. "Take the money and get as much as possible. It takes a ton of dough to start a dot-com."
In his company's brief history, Heller has stuck to his original game plan for the most part. He plans to start a branded exchange this fall, which would enable sellers to list their product brands and prices, sending this information out to buyers. If the products don't sell this way, the sellers can then opt to use FoodUSA.com's traditional auction-style exchange.
FoodUSA.com also recently partnered with a logistics company to offer transportation to its customers.
Employees at FoodUSA.com keep in touch with end-users through constant contact. "Our exchange is really a glorified bulletin board," Heller says. "It's manned by people who know the meat industry. Our trade facilitators have 20 to 25 years of meat-industry experience."
This gives FoodUSA.com users a much-needed comfort level. "They have been buying by telephone since the telephone was invented," Heller says of FoodUSA.com’s users. "I knew I wasn't going to get these buyers to go straight into Internet purchasing. We give them a happy medium: They can look at the computer monitor, and they can still use the telephone too. There's a comfort level in talking to a trade facilitator whose reputation is on the line. If the goods don't show up, the customer has someone he can call."
"It's all about bringing customers along at a speed they are comfortable with," Heller adds. "As they get more comfortable, it'll be easier to introduce full-fledged electronic trading. There's no question we will change but we have to do it at their speed."