"We must not be rash and use e-commerce for the sake of e-commerce," says Vanyi-Robin, 27, who founded Visualcom two years ago to help companies use the Internet in Latin America. Since then he's snagged clients that include Taiwan-based computer-maker Acer. Although the young, French-born executive may be short on professional experience, he's done the research -- a 300-page, Internet-related business plan researched in Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina for the University of Miami, where he was a graduate assistant in information services. He graduated in 1995 with an MBA.
In Latin America, he says, "the end users as we know them in the U.S. are simply not there yet." Translation: The PC-owning, Internet-surfing, credit card-wielding, upper-middle-class army of consumers who like to browse and buy directly off Web sites doesn't exist in Latin America. According to reliable estimates, there are only something like 1 million Internet users in Brazil and another million in the rest of Latin America combined, mainly in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Venezuela. But even as that group grows, there are other enormous obstacles to American-style Internet sales. Relatively few Latin Americans have credit cards, for example -- no small speed bump on the information superhighway.
When Visualcom started working with Acer, that company's Latin American unit already knew about some of the barriers in Latin America: phone and Internet service provider regulations, costs and quality vary from country to country, and government-run postal services are generally unreliable. "In Colombia, you can wait half an hour for a dial tone," says Luis Guardia, marketing production manager for Acer Latin America. Getting a second phone line for a computer can take months.
And delivering products to Latin customers can be a costly headache, too. "The problem with the mail is that in most places, if the package looks like something valuable" -- like a computer -- "it will never arrive," Guardia says. That means turning to costly, private parcel companies to deliver goods ordered from a Web site. And yet, he says, "as a computer company, we knew we had to be online" in Latin America as elsewhere. Acer had developed Web sites for the more Internet-savvy countries -- Brazil, Mexico and Argentina -- but needed a general, Spanish-language site for Latin consumers elsewhere.
Acer liked Visualcom's common-sense approach: Use a Web site to help consumers learn more about your products, find local distributors to buy from and get service if something goes wrong. Visualcom also understood the Web-site realities in Latin America: Many people own older, slower, memory-limited machines with slow modems or phone lines. A busy Web site with memory-intensive graphics that take forever to materialize on screen would just drive people crazy.
The Latin American site that Acer developed (www.acla.acer.com) is simple, clean and easy to use. Each page is one screen-length and concise. Users can click on product names to get technical specifications, or point to a location to get a local vendor's name, address and telephone number. There's even a "text only" option so viewers with slow machines can skip time-consuming graphics. But you can't order a computer online.
So once a basic site is developed, how can you help Latin consumers find it on the Web? Vanyi-Robin shies away from the standard American search engines. Instead, he recommends local, country-specific engines, links to related sites and traditional advertising to promote the address. In short: Just keep it simple. Unfortunately, he says, "lots of American companies are so excited about using the Internet they think it has to work the same everywhere. But by trying to be too cute, you lose the message."