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Third Age

This is your father’s Web site. And damn proud of it, too. Third Age is the unofficial digital playground for empty nesters, curious Internet students, devoted care givers, out-of-practice bachelors, wary investors, adventurous travelers, eager teachers, and open-minded listeners. Geared toward an adult population previously ostracized or intimidated by the World Wide Web, Third Age has successfully targeted and captured perhaps the most affluent and loyal audience around.

This is your father’s Web site. And damn proud of it, too.

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Third Age is the unofficial digital playground for empty nesters, curious Internet students, devoted care givers, out-of-practice bachelors, wary investors, adventurous travelers, eager teachers, and open-minded listeners. Geared toward an adult population previously ostracized or intimidated by the World Wide Web, Third Age has successfully targeted and captured perhaps the most affluent and loyal audience around.

Founded in August 1996 by education and technology professor Mary Furlong, Third Age was blessed with a distinct vision and a corral of outstanding directors and advisers (Mort Meyerson, Melinda French Gates, and Guy Kawasaki) from the beginning. When Fast Company first visited their San Francisco office’s during the summer of 1998, the company was establishing and nurturing useful online communities that have since outlasted and outgrown their competition. It was also learning how to attract young, innovative talent to a company geared toward adults ranging in age from 45 to 65, and establish profitable, brand-building partnerships and sponsorships with organizations including E*Trade, Renaissance Cruises, and Yahoo!

Since then, Third Age has celebrated a great deal of success. The Web site has attracted more than 400,000 users, who have bolstered page views to about 17 million a month. Most notably, the burgeoning company recently completed one of the largest private-placement rounds of investment in Internet history. In mid-August, investors including CBS, Merrill Lynch, American Century, and publisher Hollinger International emptied $89 million into the Multimedia Gulch powerhouse. Now that CBS owns a 30 percent stake in the company, Third Age is poised for total media domination.

In the following interview, Founder and CEO Mary Furlong discusses her brain child and its most promising prospects for the future.

How have your vision and objectives changed or expanded since you last spoke with Fast Company?

The vision has only expanded. We have maintained the notion that Third Age can become the place, the venue, and the lens on the Web for this audience of people 45 and older. We have observed for two years what this audience does on the Internet, and now we know what interactive experiences, tools, and resources appeal to them.

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I always thought the personal publishing and community aspects would be important to this group, and that notion was affirmed with this initiative. I knew relationships would be important but I was surprised at how extensive the relationship area could grow to be. Connecting with other people is really a big issue. I was also surprised to see how fast on-line learning took off. The Third Age School of Learning was developed as a result, and really took off.

Along those lines, we’ve been able to grow our vision by developing channels throughout the Third Age site, and expanding our community tools and sponsors.

Our staff has grown tremendously since the last time we spoke. We’ve had great young people and great Third Agers join the company. We have a news service based in Washington, D.C., and we also just opened a New York sales office. I think we have about 70 employees now. Three years ago we were just beginning and now we’re strongly positioned to stay and continue as a market leader.

What specific accomplishments have been crucial to the growth of Third Age?

One overarching recent accomplishment was getting the financing needed to move this company to the next level and establish market leadership. We built out the product. We attracted the audience, the community, to the product. We did well with sponsors and with sponsor revenue, with innovative sponsorship programs that helped us win the Momentum Award last year for innovative sponsorships. We were able to take our content and thread it into other distribution channels, which created a model that allowed us to take a broader look at radio and television.

Meanwhile, our traffic is reaching very strong numbers. We’ve seen exponential growth, not incremental growth, there. And we’ve done well with our sponsoring partners and we continue to attract great brand name companies like IBM, Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Merrill-Lynch, Proctor and Gamble, and so forth. We have also established good distribution relationships with AOL, the Go Network, and other partners for threading content and resources into other channels.

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The Third Age Caregiving Center is a good example of a recent initiative. Our audience may be taking care of their parents longer than they’re taking care of their own children. We’ve made an effort to meet the needs of this sector, and understand the stresses they are under. What if your parents don’t live nearby? How do you deal with loss of a parent? Who’s going to be responsible for care giving and what resources are around. We’ve attracted a really strong expert, Beth Witrogen McLeod, who has been able to provide a voice for this group and supply them with resources.

Users have been very forthcoming in the community section. So coming up in the future we are going to launch Third Age Personals where people can just meet people. Otherwise, where do you meet someone when you’re 50 and older?

I feel we have developed a product strategy that allowed us to develop stronger community assets and channels. Now, the channel content areas are meeting the needs of sponsors. People are increasingly seeing us as the first to market in the leading vertical portal to serve the needs of this audience. That’s probably the biggest accomplishment.

How has your competitive market changed?

People are now aware of this market space. We’ve seen the arrival of groups like MyPrimeTime.com, which is targeted specifically at baby boomers – a slightly different audience.

What is your current strategy for the future?

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First of all, because CBS has purchased a third of the company, we want to really integrate Third Age into the CBS radio and television, outdoor, and on-line properties. We’re working on the integration plan now. Things like “60 Minutes,” the morning show, radio segments,

We will be doing a site re-launch on November 1 as well. And next year I’ll also be writing a new book on “What is the Third Age?” Defining this market.

In terms of going forward, we’re right now looking at possible acquisitions. We are interested in buffing out our channels, developing our e-commerce strategy, expanding our management team, and building our brand. This audience is becoming more comfortable with online technologies. When you look at our strategy for the future, you will see we have very robust e-commerce initiatives.

Previously featured in issue 16, page 162