Editor's Page


Hokies chase the dot-com dream

by Kimberly Richards-Thomas '93, M.A. '95

Dot-com glory, circa 1999:

You've read the stories about dot-com entrepreneurs: they started an Internet company right out of college. They put a "dot-com" in the name, earned millions in venture capital funding, sold the stock, and got rich without ever turning a profit. Then they retired at 25 and took luxury vacations until they were bored with caviar, sports cars, and designer fashions. E-commerce soared in the stock market and showed all the promise of a new-millennium American Dream. For a few, the dream came true, and the dividends made them wealthier than they ever could have imagined. For others, the dot-com story was different. They slaved night and day, napped on cots in their offices in lieu of going to bed, and hopped desperately from one dot-com to another until they got the dreaded pink slip.

Dot-com gore, 2001:

By the end of Y2K, the carnage had begun. Companies with billions in venture capital funding and mega ad campaigns behind them, such as the notorious Pets.com, were folding left and right. Since then, only the strong have survived. Like reality television at its most capricious, the market votes off companies for even the slightest mistake. Nevertheless, a few brave Hokies have thrown their hats into the dot-com ring and made a bid for e-success. Here's how they've fared so far....


Driving through a Northern Virginia suburb one sunny day in 1998, Brian Adams (art '94) and his wife JoAnn (electrical engineering '94) noticed something strange. Like a futuristic wasteland, no children played outside--no sounds of games or laughter echoed through the neighborhood. The streets were empty.

Thus began Funology.com (www.funology.com), "the best place on the Web to find things to do," and one of the few sites online whose creators actually want people to leave the site and go have fun the old-fashioned way--somewhere away from a computer or television screen. The site is an activity warehouse for kids, parents, and teachers filled with jokes, riddles, tricks, facts, science, art, and more.


Since its launch in November 1999, Funology.com has garnered extensive national and international press coverage, including a feature on the BBC television network. It was included in Jeeves, I'm Bored: 25 Internet Adventures for Kids, published in June 2000, and named one of the top 10 family sites by the American Library Association. Inspired by American suburbs, it now draws visitors from around the world, including Australia, China, and the United Kingdom.

On tough times:

"The trick to being a successful dot-com used to be being the first to market with a certain idea. Now we find ourselves saying that we'll be one of the last ones standing, and that's what matters." Brian Adams


An entrepreneur for more than 25 years, Doug Ross (business administration '64) decided to open an Internet business in 1999, when e-commerce was hot. All he needed was a high-demand product. "If I could give it away and make money--that would be the ultimate goal!" he explains.

Ross and his partners refined this concept to create the first and only e-library service. They launched www.booksfree.com in December 2000 just as the crunch really hit.

Booksfree.com allows members to check out up to five paperback books at a time for a fee that covers all shipping costs and access to thousands of bestsellers. Backend automation from Web site to warehouse simplifies the process for members and employees alike. Membership growth is targeted to reach 3,000 during the first year and booksfree.com is on track to reach that goal.

Greatest challenge:

"Two: 1) The reputation of the Internet; 2) Funding for growth."

Market edge:

Ross believes in the staying power of sound business.

"The staff management and board of booksfree.com are very seasoned--there's no one under 40, and they range from senior executives in large companies to longstanding entrepreneurs. We put together a strategy based on a solid business plan." Specifically, all revenues are based on membership fees and sales rather than advertising. This shift to subscription-based or fee-for-services business models, projects Ross, is the next evolution of e-commerce.


While it isn't Hollywood's gateway to the stars, CinemaSolutions.com (www.cinemasolutions.com) helps make the glamour of the big screen possible. An Internet buying network for the cinema industry, the company offers theatres, distributors, and vendors access to all the nuts and bolts of the business.

"Concessions are traded over the Internet--seating, lighting, carpeting, projection equipment--everything you see in the theatre when you walk in the door," says co-founder and CEO Anita Watts (international studies '90). She and husband James Watts (business, finance '91), who is COO, founded CinemaSolutions.com with two others and launched it in October 1999. The company offers a cross-category purchasing system, and all services are membership-based.


Running a business in a volatile market with two young children doesn't quite add up to dot-com glamor. Late-night grocery trips, 3 a.m. e-mails to Europe, and 80-hour work weeks are par for the course. But the demands are outweighed by every landmark moment, such as signing Cinemark and Clearview Cinemas, and expanding into new office space when many major dot-coms had already gone under.

On tough times:

"It's a huge personal risk and a huge financial risk. But as they say--no pain, no gain."-- Anita Watts


He never had a "real job," and he doesn't believe in 90-hour work weeks. But his company broke $3 million in sales in 1999, and business sextupled in the year 2000.

"It's all funded out of customer payments for services--there's no investment funding the growth," says Curt Finch (computer science '87), founder and CEO of Journyx.com (www.journyx.com). "The employees own roughly 93 percent of the company." Started in 1996, Journyx.com employed five people in 1999 and jumped to more than 50 in 2000.

An independent contractor right out of college, Finch eventually became part owner in a software consultancy whose clients included IBM. Tracking his time manually, he learned a key lesson: when you can show the real costs of projects, you can bid on them more competitively. That simple fact can mean millions. Finch's next step was logical---develop software to automate this process and start a new company.

Finch's product is an Internet-based software that "allows companies to track and manage a distributed workforce." Major clients include General Electric, Hewlett-Packard, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Verizon, and Fidelity.

On the growth curve:

"Within five years I expect to be doing over $100 million in sales and have the company established as a well-recognized corporation." --Curt Finch


If you can't find it, build it. That philosophy has served Joseph Boggs (architecture '71) well. He co-founded International Design and Construction online (www.e-IDC.com) in 1999 after several fruitless days of Web research.

"It became clear that the design and construction industries needed a place where they could fully function on all facets," says Boggs. "There are other companies out there similar to e-IDC.com, but none brings both design and construction to the same global portal."

Market edge:

The key to e-IDC.com's endurance has been strategic partnerships. "Of e-IDC.com's direct competition, most have been identified as specific application providers, somewhat lacking the tools necessary for the [architecture, engineering, and construction] industry to adapt and utilize the power of the Internet. Some of these companies have been identified as potential partners, not merely competition," he says. Technology partners, for example, include Palm Inc. and Qwest Communications.

On tough times:

Boggs believes careful spending and planning will carry e-IDC.com through the fluctuating market. "Rather than imprudently spending valuable funding on elaborate campaigns, excessive staffs, and trendy office space, e-IDC.com focused on technology first and foremost. Although marketing is vital, Internet companies need to remember that the focus should be on ever-changing technology and how it can be applied to their customers."


Not many new companies can say they've moved millions in the first years, but eContributor (www.econtributor.com) can. The company offers a suite of online fundraising products, bringing the latest technology to bear on grassroots development efforts. Since going live in late 1999, eContributor has processed more than

$8 million in contributions and seen revenue growths of 20 percent per quarter. The company works with nonprofit organizations and political groups on both sides of the spectrum. Major clients include the Republican National Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and regional branches of the American Red Cross.

President Bob Ellsworth (industrial engineering '90) and Vice President of Operations Lynne (Erler) Ellsworth (industrial engineering '90; M.S. '93) co-founded eContributer with four others.

On tough times:

Company revenues are transaction-based and have continued to grow, but because they went the venture capital route, eContributor has definitely felt the pinch. They've cut back on developing new products, which meant laying off the development staff, and they've moved into less expensive office space.

"It's a lot worse than even the media lets on to get venture capital funding for a start-up right now. There is no room for mistakes. You have to find and use all the resources you can to survive."-- Bob Ellsworth


If she had her way, Angela Hensley-Lay (M.A.Ed. curriculum and instruction '96) would still be a health and physical education teacher and coach. Instead, when a medical condition forced her to change gears, she became founder and president of Fantasy Fit (www.fantasyfit.com) in 1998.

An online health and fitness training site, Fantasy Fit provides personal training services tailored to an individual's goals and resources. All trainers have at least a master's in a fitness-related field, a point which makes Fantasy Fit stand out from its competitors. Trainers work with clients by e-mail and phone.

Access to fitness expertise is not limited to members, however; the site is a storehouse of free information. Fact sheets and videos cover topics from exercise to diet, exposing common myths along the way.


National coverage in Self and Mode magazines, on MSNBC.com, and on ABC News, has led to several spikes in memberships. Twice reporters have signed up anonymously and given the service rave reviews.

Though profitable, the company remains small. But profits and growth aren't what stand out to Hensley-Lay. "We're all purists--physical education teachers and coaches--and we really want people to get this. We're just tickled to death when people are successful. We couldn't give this kind of attention and get rich."


When Christina Blenk (marketing '90) started At First Site (www.atfirstsite.net) in 1997, she quickly found that the "if you build it, they will come" line did not apply to her Web design business.

"I had to do it the old-fashioned way, which is to get out and meet people," she said. The learning curve she faced at every step--applying for a business loan, hiring the first employee--inspired a second site, www.womanowned.com. Geared toward women entrepreneurs, the site has evolved into an extensive repository of articles, tips, feedback, and networking opportunities to help women grow their businesses.


Since 1997, At First Site's business has increased 35-50 percent every year. With client-based revenues, it is not only profitable, but Blenk now earns what she's worth, a significant milestone in any business, she says.

Today, www.womanowned.com basically runs itself, gaining more than 2,000 members from all over the world since the beginning of the year. Blenk estimates the site serves about 15,000-20,000 unique visitors per month and has increased about 25 percent per year since 1997. It was reviewed favorably in The Wall Street Journal and has been mentioned in several books for women entrepreneurs.

It is also part of a consortium of women's Web sites called Women's Forum, currently the number two Web site for women worldwide behind i-Village. One woman's venue for spreading business know-how has turned into an inspiration for millions.


It's a dot-com dream come truealmost. The outcome remains to be seen.

Launched from a laptop in late 1999, www.ezboard.com is now one of the most visited sites in the world. Founded by Vanchau Nguyen (computer science '94), the site lets users create and manage free bulletin boards.

"There is nothing more important than building valuable relationships. That is what we do," says Nguyen.

As the Internet took off, Nguyen couldn't believe no one was offering an easy way to create online communities. He developed an application, made it available online, and launched ezboard from his home in San Jose. Demand for the technology soared, and headquarters quickly moved to an office in nearby San Francisco.


ezboard has become a market leader. In June 2001, the company had registered more than 5 million users. According to Nguyen, Netscore recently ranked it in the top 100 worldwide in terms of unique users per month.

On tough times:

"Tough times is an understatement. The stench of dot-com carcasses is almost overwhelming here," notes Nguyen. To compensate, ezboard has had to reduce personnel, scale back on expansion, and focus on becoming profitable sooner than planned.

"The rise and subsequent fall of the dot-com dream is unparalleled, except for maybe what happened to Vanilla Ice," he jokes.