Hayneedle co-founder proud of role 'helping building some of the technology base in Omaha'

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Posted: Friday, April 25, 2014 12:00 am

Doug Nielsen, co-founder of Hayneedle, the online home decor retailer, wasn't about to be crushed by the dot-com bubble that wiped out some online retailers at the end of the 20th century.

At that point, consumers were not quite ready to embrace Internet sales beyond the gift certificates, books, CDs and consumer electronics available at Amazon.com and other e-commerce pioneers that survived the bubble.

But Nielsen, who started his first business after graduating from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and sold it four years later, foresaw a time when Internet sales would thrive, fueled by a greater selection of products and attention to customer service.

Today, Hayneedle sells more than 2 million products, including furniture for every room in the house, kitchen appliances, fitness equipment, baby furniture, children's toys and pet supplies. Headquartered in Omaha, Hayneedle employs about 500 people, including 400 in Omaha.

With distribution centers in Middletown, Ohio, and Riverside, Calif., and a wide network of manufacturers, Hayneedle is able to deliver its products within two days to 87 percent of its customers.

Nielsen, who was born and raised in Omaha, said he's proud of what the company has accomplished and the role it has played in “helping building some of the technology base in Omaha.”

“A lot of people have come to Hayneedle and learned about the Internet,” he told members of the Association for Corporate Growth Nebraska at a breakfast meeting Thursday at Happy Hollow Country Club.

Some left the company, taking their skills to other Omaha businesses, while still others took what they learned at Hayneedle “to pursue entrepreneurial dreams, and further the entrepreneurial community in Omaha.”

In 2002, the entrepreneurs were Nielsen and Hayneedle co-founders Mark Hasebroock and Julie Mahloch, Nielsen's sister. They discovered a “hippie, llama farmer in Seattle” who ran an online business that sold hammocks and only hammocks.

“He was ... making a half-million dollars a year,” Nielsen said. “It was the best place to buy a hammock.”

Nielsen and his partners reasoned that the concept of selling one product on one website could be extended to other categories.

From 2002 through 2007, the trio opened 300 online stores, buying up domain names and selling products like coffeemakers and porch swings on easy-to-remember websites such as porchswings.com and coffeemakers.com.

Even though consumers were not yet bullish on e-commerce, sales increased from $500,000 to $200 million in six years.

In 2009 the company, then known as Netshops, became Hayneedle, and the various products and their niche websites were moved to Hayneedle.com.

Type in coffeemakers.com or porchswings.com and you'll find yourself — through the magic of the Internet — at Hayneedle.com.

“That was a challenge,” Nielsen said. The process involved moving every single product listing to Hayneedle.com and reprogramming a million keywords so that customers in search of home decor items and related products would be redirected to Hayneedle, he said.

Nielsen recently stepped down as Hayneedle's chief executive but remains the company's chairman of the board. Jon Barker, Hayneedle's former president and chief operations officer, was promoted last week to chief executive.

“We brought together a lot of talent that is expanding our leadership,” Nielsen said after Thursday's presentation.

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