As so many things do, Mike Holmes' winning idea started with friends and family. The custom design/builder first used Yahoo Groups to keep in touch with a wide circle of friends and relatives scattered across the country. It was so easy to transmit photos, exchange e-mail, and update everyone on family happenings via a Yahoo Groups Web page that Holmes soon realized he could use the free service to keep his scattered clientele informed about their projects as well.

And scattered they are. The Reno, Nev./Lake Tahoe area is a magnet for second-home buyers, Holmes' primary customers. His clients hale from the Bay Area, Southern California, and Colorado, all the way to points “Back East.” When clients would come for a site visit, it was a hectic dash to fill them in on progress, get selections approved, and work through the endless details that continually come up.

No more. Now when Holmes starts a new project, he sets up a Web site for it on Yahoo Groups and as moderator of the site invites the clients to join it. They can link as many family members to the site as they want; when something is posted, they're all notified. The members of the group can communicate by e-mail and view drawings and digital photos of the project and selections that Holmes uploads to the site. They can also download the project documents and drawings he posts as PDFs, which cannot be altered. If a document needs to be signed, Holmes asks the clients to print it out, sign it, and fax it back to him. He then posts it to the site as an unalterable scanned document. He also saves all his CAD drawings to the site in PDF format. If the clients need copies or want to zoom in on a section, they can put the file on a disk and have it printed out on a plotter at Kinko's.

Yahoo Groups archives all the messages and documents posted to the Web site and allows members of a group to search by date or file name. Because all this documentation is stored off site, “I don't have to worry about a calamity or backing up,” Holmes says. And when the project closes, he burns all the files to a CD, keeping one for himself and sending a copy to the clients. Holmes says setting up a site is simple; Yahoo Groups provides easy-to-follow instructions. Best of all, he says, is that the service is free. There are pop-up ads that accompany the site, but so far none of his clients has complained.

Holmes Construction Co. Inc., Reno, Nev. 
Type of business: design/build
Years in business: 16
Employees: 4
2004 volume: $1.1 million
2004 starts: 3