How one electronics site is cashing in by creating content
Some people put their business on the Web for fame. Others, for fortune. Stewart Wolpin and friends put theirs up for revenge. When Wolpin, 44, and four others met at the Consumer Electronics Show in 1995, they found they had a common bond: all were freelance writers who were tired of having publications republish their articles and reviews on the Internet without compensating them. Technically, publishers didn’t own the rights to their online material, but back then that was not reflected in contracts. Instead of hiring a lawyer, Wolpin and his writing buddies decided to hire a Web agency. They each pitched in $1,500 and in January 1996 launched their own site, E/Town (www.e-town.com). Skeptics, including some of their peers, prophesied that they would never be able to afford to build and maintain a Web site on their meager freelance salaries. Three years later, Wolpin and com-pany are hiring some of those same skeptics to freelance for them. Based in New York City, E/Town offers news, research, and hundreds of opinionated reviews of home electronic devices like rear-projection TVs, pagers, VCRs, DVD players, stereo loudspeakers, camcorders, cell phones, and, basically, anything you’d find in a Best Buy store. The reviews are thick with detail, feel as friendly as a neighborhood tavern, and read as if they’d been dipped in the DNA of Consumer Reports, “Siskel & Ebert,” and “Car Talk.” That was a deliberate choice, says Wolpin, who emphasizes that he is one of five principals to have orchestrated this venture. “We adopted a cynical, prove-it-to-me pose so that people would trust our judgment. We wanted to be that knowledgeable friend you took shopping with you when you went to buy a stereo.” By early 1999, word had spread that E/Town was a reliable source of information. After steadily refreshing the content, adding reams of information, installing a buyer’s guide (a searchable library of past articles), and creating one of the most popular consumer-electronics message boards on the Internet, the founders saw the site pulling in close to 350,000 visitors a month and enough revenue from a handful of advertisers to keep the company afloat. Steve Diller, director of media research for Cheskin Research in Redwood Shores, Calif., says that reliability and trustworthiness are the keys to sites like E/Town. “People use Web sites to research products before they buy, but they’re still leery when it comes to recommendations. Any site that does this has to be aboveboard and absolutely disinterested.” But being aboveboard and corporate-sponsorship-free has its price. And Wolpin and cofounder Ron Goldberg knew from looking at their own bank accounts that neither the heavy traffic nor the design and content awards they were winning would ensure their survival. They had to evolve their business plan. That’s when they turned to Robert Heiblim, a former head of Denon Electronics, whom Goldberg knew well from the Electronics Industries Association, where Goldberg had once served as a media spokesperson. Heiblim, now E/Town’s CEO, helped the group retool its strategy to include an e-commerce angle and raise $3.5 million from private sources.