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Plain-talking billionaire, Warren Buffett, offers rich lesson to 2 University of Washington entrepreneurs

May 9, 2003View for printing

Pete Denton and Jeff Nellans sometimes snag new customers for their Web-design company by sending letters to potential clients telling them their Web site stinks.

By Tricia Duryee Seattle Times Eastside business reporter

For the dozens of letters the University of Washington students have sent, they've never gotten a response to their offer to spruce up a Web site like the one from Warren Buffett.

As the second-richest man in the world and the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett is considered a financial guru who preaches a very unexciting stick-to-the-basics style of investing. "That's the thing. We send letters to some people, and they don't write back. And then we send a letter to Warren Buffett, and he responds right away," said Nellans, a senior studying economics.

Buffett replied just two weeks after they wrote in August. In a handwritten note on the same letter the two had sent him, Buffett explained it wasn't his style to have anything flashier.

"Our Website, like our name, annual report, and headquarters is meant to convey just what we are — a different sort of company. We are intentionally plane (sic), like a woman who wears no makeup because it fits our personality and attitude." The kicker, however, was in the postscript: "Come to our annual meeting and the festivities next year, May 2-4."

And so the two 22-year-olds packed their bags and flew out last Friday. The experience has changed their whole approach to business.

Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting, held last weekend in Omaha, Neb., is the event of the financial world. Invitees and shareholders — owning stock selling at more than $70,000 a share — spend three days drinking cocktails in Buffett's jewelry store, eating hot dogs in his furniture store and, in general, hanging on every word Buffett says. On Friday and Saturday, the UW students got glimpses of Buffett. On Sunday at the furniture store, Denton and Nellans thought they might meet Buffett, or at least see him playing bridge with the deck of cards they sent after accepting his invitation. It was the personal touch they thought would get them noticed.

Although it didn't help in getting an introduction to Buffett, they said what they learned was much more valuable.

Denton, who is taking a break from his English studies to run Cube Three Design, said he learned a hard lesson.

"Don't get caught up too much in advertising," he said. "We were naive in thinking that aesthetic appeal and design was everything.... Berkshire Hathaway is the most beautiful woman not wearing makeup."

There were signs of this message everywhere. During the cocktail reception, the company served cheap liquor. In the basement of the auditorium, where the annual meeting was held, there were booths for the Berkshire Hathaway companies: GEICO was selling insurance, Dairy Queen was passing out Blizzards and Fruit of the Loom was handing out undershirts.

The same message was at the jewelry store and furniture store, too, where people were spending thousands of dollars.

Buffet's "not only the chief executive, he's the chief salesman," Nellans said.

Denton and Nellans are retooling their strategy of sending out letters. Instead of saying a potential client's Web site isn't fancy enough, they will tell people the sites could be designed better to sell more products.

Now back in Seattle, Nellans and Denton are thinking about what they will write in their thank-you letter to Buffett. Denton said it probably won't be his last.

"When he calls and tells me to stop writing, I'll get my last pitch, and we'll be done. I just got to get him on the phone," Denton said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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