The Travesty of BerkshireHathaway.com

The internet is a lot like a boomtown. It was built around the resource vein of information, and it was quickly populated with every type of company prospecting for paydirt. As any boomtown, its housing was utilitarian at first: rows of canvas tents and Plain Jane HTML. Companies eventually found that they liked the place and decided to set a spell, improving their websites and creating the internet community we know and love today.

However, within this community there are companies and organizations with what might be considered not so much websites as historic sites. Some of these are kept for posterity (Space Jam); some are just inexplicably bad (us.gov), though you get the feeling that they’ll be renovated eventually as was whitehouse.gov; and some are jealously guarded by old, white-haired, hermit prospectors who refuse to be bought out, still shouting from their porch at passersby. The most heinous of these offenders has to be BerkshireHathaway.com.

No, you didn’t just step through the Wayback Machine. That’s the actual website of the largest investment group in the U.S., and the white-haired prospector in this case is the inscrutable CEO, President and Chairman, Warren Buffett. As have many design firms, we offered to rebuild their site for free some years ago if only to make the internet a prettier place (and having Berkshire Hathaway in the old portfolio wouldn’t be too shabby either). Alas, even free is too steep a price for Buffett and company to join the modern world.

BH has a website with no personal branding, no calls to action, no regard for user intent or experience and definitely no tracking because honestly, what would a conversion be on that site? The only means of contacting them is an email address in Lilliputian font in the page’s footer, and even that comes with a disclaimer stating explicitly that your email won’t get a reply and less explicitly that you can pretty much suck it.

The worst part, though, has to be the presentation. If I’m considering buying the most expensive stock in the world at over $100 thousand a share, then I expect a little more pomp and circumstance than a page that looks like it was designed with Word 95. Its boring, bland, Spartan and ugly as homemade sin; and many people, including some web designers, think it’s perfect.

The concept of keeping a website intentionally under-designed isn’t new—just look at Craigslist. A minimalist approach to web design can be seen as directly in line with Berkshire Hathaway’s brand (if it has one). They are all about limiting expenses: they abhor flashiness; they have fewer than 30 corporate employees; they are headquartered in Omaha; and they would rather people focus on their assets than the holding company itself.

That’s all fine, but a company like IKEA, which saves customers money by letting them assemble their own furniture, doesn’t cut costs with a particle board website users have to put together with an Allen wrench. Likewise, a frugal company has never gained more customers through a frugally designed site. The uselessness of the BH site egotistically assumes that if people are serious about investing or learning more, they’ll put more work in. The problem is that the egregiousness of the site is such that users might first think they’ve arrived at a parked domain. I know I did, even after being warned that it was a bad site.

Does it really matter, though? It’s not like Berkshire Hathaway sells anything through its site beyond linking to a subsidiary that sells branded Oxford shirts with graphics of hundred dollar bills coming out of the pocket.

As we’ve mentioned before, there is no difference between the online you and the real you. How a person or business comes across online is how he, she or it is perceived overall. Looking at BerkshireHathaway.com, one gets the sense of looking at the old guard. It’s outdated. It lacks transparency. It has the same level of concern for its appearance as a dad on vacation. This not only reflects badly on the brand, it reflects badly on its subsidiaries, some of which includes Geico, Helzberg Diamonds and Business Wire. If this is how the parent company comports itself, does the apple fall far from the tree? It may all seem ethereal, but experience tells us that these things impact real life dollars.

When dealing with a company that makes more money than the GDP of most countries, any percentage loss is astronomical. According to the SEC, the revenue of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. was $162 billion in 2012. Just for fun, let’s say that their superfluously white-spaced site and lack of any real online presence resulted in a missed opportunity of .01% or 1/10,000th of their business. Though a small percentage, that’s still $16,200,000. Again just for frivolity’s sake, let’s consider a comparable missed opportunity for the last ten years or the amount of time that two-thirds or more of the U.S. population has been using the internet. You’re left with a theoretical $162 million.

We know that all companies—B2B, B2C, small or large—benefit from a well-formulated online presence. We know that when sites are redesigned or adjusted with the user as top priority, the results can be staggering. We know that changing one button on a certain ecommerce site resulted in a $300 million revenue increase. We also know that with buyer journey mapping, analytics, SEO, PPC, social and PR, you can reach the exact person you’re looking for at exactly the right time. We know that with the right story to tell, there are no limits to a brand’s reach.

Berkshire Hathaway may not feel any real need to update their online presence, and maybe that’s justified by the fact that most of their shareholders probably don’t care what their website looks like; but they’re definitely not doing themselves or their subsidiaries any favors. A well-designed site would lend them credibility. A stock ticker would create an air of transparency. A friendlier way to get in contact with them would make them seem warmer and not like an aloof, impersonal, out-of-touch conglomerate.

Online is the new paradigm. It’s how people learn about and interact with companies. What Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have created is truly amazing, but it’s time one of America’s leading companies had an online presence worthy of that distinction.

Written by Keeper of the Light on July 19, 2013

Comments

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hahahah says:

"in line with Berkshire Hathaway’s brand (if it has one)"

Kill yourself. You are terrible at what you're trying to do with your life. Kill yourself.

hahahah says:

"in line with Berkshire Hathaway’s brand (if it has one)"

Kill yourself. You are terrible at what you're trying to do with your life. Kill yourself.

Janine Irene Sechler says:

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Love Janine Irene Sechler

Dave says:

You are a moron for writing this 'article'.

Conan says:

Hi John,

Where did you get your figure of 0.01% increase in revenue? Why do you presume that having that website has resulted in _any_ lost revenue at all?

PS: You shouldn't have a required field in a comments section without indicating it is a required field. To your credit, after I clicked back (from your exceptionally ugly error screen), and clicked to add a comment again, it did put the message I'd typed back in.

I would be really curious to know how Berkshire Hathaway responded to your offer to redesign their website. I hope they were polite, and thanked you.

Berkshire Hathaway's current website design is perfect, as a means of conveying its spirit: Traditional, straightforward. Think of the "The Cleveland Plain Dealer". It evokes virtue, sincerity, honesty, which is the Buffett-Munger message. Despite that, you make a valid point about the site's look being so incongruous that it could lead one to mistakenly believe it to be a parked domain. That is not good! A wise man like Warren Buffett should take that portion of your advice to heart and act on it.

I would be really curious to know how Berkshire Hathaway responded to your offer to redesign their website. I hope they were polite, and thanked you.

Berkshire Hathaway's current website design is perfect, as a means of conveying its spirit: Traditional, straightforward. Think of the "The Cleveland Plain Dealer". It evokes virtue, sincerity, honesty, which is the Buffett-Munger message. Despite that, you make a valid point about the site's look being so incongruous that it could lead one to mistakenly believe it to be a parked domain. That is not good! A wise man like Warren Buffett should take that portion of your advice to heart and act on it.

Ed says:

I'm fairly certain that the majority of Berkhshire shareholders are institutions that really don't care about their website. As others have said, the little guy that wants to own Berkshire stock has plenty of other avenues to learn about the country. But yeah... the site could be relocated to a wordpress blog and made decent looking for under $500.

John Copponex says:

Our aspirations to do business with Berkshire Hathaway died years ago when we unsuccessfully offered to rebuild their website for free. We just think that the company is so huge and the site is so bad that the whole thing is kind of hilarious.

We agree that most investors, especially those who can afford shares of BRK, wouldn't care about a website. In this regard, are they losing millions? Probably not. But like Ben said, there's no reason to have such a terrible website. The price and prestige of BH stock is filter enough to sort out unqualified buyers. Warren Buffett obviously doesn't have anything to prove, but they're not doing themselves any favors with their site, and there's no way the current site will be in place for the rest of the company's existence, let alone the tenure of the next CEO.

And if you like the Berkshire threads site now, that's nothing compared to the original: http://web.archive.org/web/19970716014139/http://www.berkshirehathaway.com/orderfrm.htm

Thanks for all the comments. Keep them coming!

Ben says:

Somebody's been drinking HaterAde (^^^). There's no reason to have such a terrible website, even if you are a techno luddite. Have you seen how swank the Berkshire threads site is, though? (http://www.berkshirewear.com) This thing's got more tables than a Piccadilly. (view source)

VW says:

This is an amusing yet ineffective way to to try to get business w/ Berkshire Hathaway.

Of those doing business w/ Hathaway, there are absolutely zero questions around credibility. So the idea that if only they enhanced their credibility is flawed.

One counter-argument could be that the flatness of the website actually attracts and filters through traffic for only qualified buyers, instead of inciting intrigue from all kinds of people who respond to smoke and mirrors instead of returns on their money.

What does Buffet have to prove? Nothing much.

As one general business tip, you should seek to solve problems that exist, not create problems that don't exist and hope someone will buy it. A commendable effort, but a little off the kilter, in my view.

gho5t says:

Interesting article but somewhat juvenile. Investors that are savvy enough (or wealthy enough) to afford BH stock would not give two flying sh*ts what its website looked like. Just my two cents.

John Copponex says:

Hey Doug,

Thanks for your thoughts. While we'd never criticize the business sense of the world's greatest investor, we also don't think he's infallible. As a digital agency, we simply take issue with what seems to be a disregard for the importance of a good online presence for any brand, even one as firmly rooted as Berkshire Hathaway. The fact that there's no way for people to engage in a dialogue with that brand, as you have with our brand, is a discredit to one of this nation's best companies.

Again, this post was all in good fun, and we have nothing but respect for Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger.

Doug says:

1. If you're speaking of user experience, you may want to test your links prior to publishing.
2. Are you really going after and critiquing Warren Buffett's business sense? While I agree that good design contributes to a brand and can affect it's growth and prosperity, your argument may be better made against someone that isn't the greatest investor of the last century.

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Keeper of the Light