The Web Can Make You a Star!

Meet four businesspeople who've made the Net their stage - and learn how they traveled down the road to fame. Then get online with your own show.

Some people think of the Web as a cavernous online library. Others consider it an electronic global village. But the Web is also the world's biggest stage. If you're an expert in a field that people care about, if you're connected to people whom others want to meet, or if you have a sense of style that lots of people enjoy, you can reach a potential audience of millions — and have impact around the world. You can become a star.

Consider the career of Robert Seidman. Three years ago Seidman was an anonymous project development manager in an obscure company called FYI Online. He was part of a team creating yet another personalized electronic news service. As part of his job, he signed up for every source of online information he could find — and soon his inbox was inundated with articles. "I thought it would be nice if someone could take all this stuff and tell me what I needed to know," he recalls. "Then I thought, 'I'm reading this stuff anyway. Why don't I do it for other people?'"

So he posted a collection of article abstracts to two Internet newsgroups. After his collection got rave reviews, he posted another one the next week. His following grew. Industry insiders started sending him information about their companies — and their competitors. Seidman then started hearing from his readers: "I love this stuff, but I don't visit newsgroups all the time. Send it to me through email." So he made that offer to all of his readers. Within three days he had 3,000 subscribers to Online Insider. A star was born.

"I love this," he marvels. "I can sit in my bedroom, write what I think, and have a relationship with thousands of people — I'm like a kid in a candy store."

Seidman is just one of many emerging Net celebrities. We'll introduce you to four of them and explain how they found their roads to fame. Their stories will help you get online with your own show.

The Guru

Star: Robert Seidman, 35, creator of Online Insider, a weekly electronic newsletter with 20,000 subscribers.

Online Insider has come a long way since its debut in 1994. It's no longer a collection of article abstracts. It's a platform for its creator's deeply held views on the fate of the online business. One typical issue, published this past fall, includes an essay by Seidman on the battle between Microsoft and Netscape. There's a letter from Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale, responding to earlier criticism of the company by Seidman, and a long meditation on whether spam email can and should be stopped.

Today Online Insider is more than just a newsletter. Seidman has launched a Web site with archives of past issues, links to companies and Web sites mentioned in his commentaries, discussion groups, and an invitation-only area called Insider Talk. "I've built a one-to-many relationship with my subscribers, and they've built a many-to-one relationship with me," he says.

Fan Club: Seidman characterizes his subscribers as "die-hard Internet enthusiasts, people in the industry, and people who work in the Internet wing of their companies." They include the most influential people in the online business — people who in turn recognize Seidman's growing clout. "What amazes me," he says, "is that people from Microsoft take the train from New York City to Westchester County, where I live, just to show me their products. Steve Case from America Online has been very good about giving me interviews."

Seidman emphasizes that although Online Insider exists to express his point of view, many subscribers pay attention primarily because of the people he talks to. Case was the first industry bigwig to make contact with him. "Then I started talking to others in the industry, and it really helped my credibility," he explains. " Once a few people start talking to you, everyone wants to talk to you."

Road to Fame: Life as an online pundit is not for the faint of heart. From the moment Seidman began distributing his newsletter, it began to take over his life. He left FYI Online in February 1995, less than six months after his first posting, and joined a former colleague at IBM. One reason: IBM liked what he was doing well enough to let him do some of it at the office. "But I was working 70 or 80 hours a week," Seidman says. "Between email, research, and writing, the newsletter alone took up 30 hours a week. I had no life." Eventually the toll became too high; Seidman had to turn his online report into a full-time job. He left IBM and cut a deal with CMP, the trade magazine empire. He agreed to become an editor at large for NetGuide, a now-defunct print magazine, and to continue producing his newsletter. "It was going to allow me to have a 40-hour-a-week lifestyle and to compensate me very well," Seidman reports. "But things didn't turn out as I'd hoped they would." He resigned in August. His current status? "I'm not affiliated," he says euphemistically.

Still, he has no regrets. Online Insider continues to grow in reach and influence, and its founder is convinced that his high profile will pay big financial dividends. "I didn't go into this to make money," says Seidman. "But I don't doubt that my value in the marketplace has tripled as a result of writing the newsletter. I've gotten some pretty flattering job offers."

The Stage: Visit Online Insider on the Web http://www.onlineinsider.com .

The Host

Star: Julie Gordon, 39, creator of The Velvet Rope, a members-only message board for music-industry news and gossip.

Julie Gordon has worked as an A&R executive at The Enclave, a music label distributed by EMI, and she once published a tip sheet on unsigned bands. Back in 1993 she became a member of America Online and discovered a message board called Record Industry Dirt. She was completely underwhelmed. "It was really boring," she says. "There was no 'record industry dirt.'" Her first reaction was to forget about the discussion folder. Her second was to take it over: "I thought, this folder could be so juicy — if I made it happen."

Making it happen meant fanning the flames. AOL allows subscribers to use up to five screen names, so Gordon simply logged on and talked to herself: "I would come in with one screen name and ask, 'Can anyone tell me what's happening at Warner Bros.?' Then I'd come in with another name and answer. It looked like an active conversation, but it was me pontificating."

She didn't fan the flames for long. Record Industry Dirt kept growing in popularity — so much so that young bands started crowding the bulletin board with promos. Gordon had to start "hiding" the discussion inside AOL: she'd rename the folder, notify her regulars of the new name, and wait until word spread to the masses. Then she'd give the folder yet another name and start the process over again. She played hide-and-seek for two years.

In August Gordon moved her discussion group from AOL to the Web. People can't join the online forum unless Gordon approves their membership. And no one calls this discussion boring. In the course of one week this past fall, postings included an enthusiastic review of an unreleased video by the Ramones, jaded comments on staff changes at Rolling Stone, and news that rocker-turned-actress Courtney Love had moved from CAA to ICM. "The Velvet Rope is strictly an insider's board for music industry pros," Gordon says. "That's what we want it to be."

Fan Club: Julie Gordon is a star more because of who she knows than because of what she knows. Her fans are the source of her fame — even though no one knows who those fans are. The Velvet Rope guarantees the anonymity of its participants.

But anonymity, like fame, can be fleeting. Gordon says that one of the most surefire conversation starters occurs when Courtney Love posts a message. If messages don't include proper names, how do people know it's her? "She makes it obvious that it's her," Gordon says. "Believe me, when Courtney Love posts, it's always a memorable moment. The thread can go on for a week."

Ultimately, though, people visit The Velvet Rope for substance rather than dish. "People are worried about job security," she says. "They want to see if we have any dirt on their company. The Rope attracts people because the information is accurate."

Road to Fame:Unlike Robert Seidman, Gordon doesn't spend late nights evaluating trends or technologies. Even as a moderator, she applies a light touch. "I steer people away from discussing personal lives," she says. "But the beauty of the Rope is that it's whatever the members want it to be."

The problem is that it's often hard for members to distinguish between who's hosting the discussion and what's being said. "I'm a brand name," Gordon says, "but people don't always think of me in the most pleasant context. If something bad gets posted about someone, it's easy for that person to associate me with the message."

The Stage: Try to get inside The Velvet Rope at http://www.velvetrope.com

The Player

Star: Tom Hespos, 25, senior media planner at K2 Design and creator of OLAF, the Online Advertising Forum.

Who says a young executive can't have major clout? About a year ago Tom Hespos signed on with K2 Design, an interactive agency based in New York City. He noticed how much time his colleagues spent reading trade magazines in a desperate effort to stay on top of their field. His idea: "Put together a single resource with all the information people needed, a daily must-read." The Web was the obvious medium. So Hespos started evaluating all the sites related to online advertising that he could find. Then he built a Web site that linked to them. "When I was done," he says, "I sent an internal email to my colleagues: 'This covers your must-reads for the day.' I got a great response."

A better response, in fact, than he'd received when he first pitched the idea to the higher-ups at K2. He had wanted the company to host his site. Management was intrigued but didn't consider it a high priority. Hespos learned that GeoCities, an online community offering free homepage setup, had created a "neighborhood" of marketing sites called Madison Avenue, for which it was holding a best-site contest. Hespos entered — and won.

Today OLAF is a rich collection of resources for the online ad business. Unlike The Velvet Rope, OLAF avoids gossip. It's a part of the industry's infrastructure. It offers links to the best sources of news and technical information, discussion forums, and job postings. It's also a vehicle for the creator's own views. Hespos's column, The Rant, offers strong opinions on hot issues.

Fan Club: One sign of OLAF's clout is the increasing number of business pitches that Hespos is receiving. In fact, he recently removed the site from GeoCities — in large part because he wants to take advantage of those opportunities. "I get up to a hundred emails a day," he says, "everything from pats on the back to 'Please list my site' to sponsorship offers."

Road to Fame: OLAF has become a big part of Hespos's professional life. Although he still works at K2, he spends 15 to 20 hours per week on the site. It's worth every minute. OLAF "has changed my life," he says. "I'm in constant touch with people in my business from around the world. It's helping me to expand my professional reach. And it's given me a lot of personal brand recognition."

The Stage: Visit OLAF on the Web http://www.olaf.net or contact Tom Hespos by email thespos@k2design.com .

The Insider

Star: Robert Hughes, 57, retired public affairs executive at Kaiser Permanente and the creator-moderator of Rumor Check, an employees-only bulletin board.

In any big organization, change generates resistance — and rumors. Kaiser, the giant California-based HMO, learned that lesson soon after it began a major restructuring in 1993. Bob Hughes was associate director of public affairs at the time, with special responsibility for employee communications. The more rumors he picked up, the more convinced he became that Kaiser needed a way to answer them. His proposed solution: an electronic bulletin board where people could post hearsay and let the company address it.

Top management endorsed the proposal — until everyone recognized how much time it might consume. "So we dropped the idea," Hughes says, "but we dropped it after the bulletin board had been set up." Slowly but surely, Kaiser employees discovered the site and started using it, even though no one at the company was publicizing it. "It became an underground forum," Hughes says. "When the IS people brought it to my attention, there was a raging battle going on between smokers and nonsmokers. Things were getting pretty ugly. IS told me, 'Either you moderate this or it gets deleted.'"

Hughes understood that a grassroots forum would reject a heavy hand. So he set up simple guidelines: "Be civil. No anonymous posts. If a joke isn't appropriate for Fox Television, it has no place on this board. I also decided that my moderation would be after-the-fact. All messages appear on the board as soon as they're sent. Then we deal with offensive ones. The success of the board is based on spontaneity and candor."

Fan Club: Hughes can't say how many of Kaiser's 34,000 employees and physicians in the region post to or read his bulletin board. But he can say that the role of Rumor Check now extends beyond its original mission. "One feature of email is that you don't know anyone's status," he says. "This is probably the only communication forum in this organization that doesn't include 'MD' after doctors' names or 'RN' ' after nurses' names. There have been heated discussions between doctors that would never have occurred in other forums."

Road to Fame: Hughes had been planning his retirement long before he launched Rumor Check, and he made it official on Thanksgiving Day 1994. But it was hard for him to break away from his bubbling electronic water cooler. So he made Kaiser an offer: give me an Internet connection at home, and I'll continue serving as Rumor Check's moderator. The offer made sense for the company: "I had 30 years of history; I could answer lots of questions off the top of my head." It also made sense for Hughes, who spends about five hours a week on the board: "It gives me a window into what's happening at Kaiser."

Hughes has some hands-on advice for aspiring moderators. "You really have to believe in candor and open communication," he says. "You have to think about where people might be coming from — to hear the question behind the question. And the bulletin board needs to become part of you. I contribute my personal experiences; they make me seem real. People feel that they know me."

The Stage: Rumor Check is limited to employees of Kaiser Permanente. Contact Robert Hughes by email robert.hughes@ncal.kaiperm.org .

Gina Imperato gimperato@fastcompany.com is a member of the Fast Company editorial staff.

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