Interview with Stanley Roberts, a television videographer whose membership website publishes restaurant and lodging reviews.
When we first reported on We8There.com last month, we were in envy of this website and its business model, so we decided to ask its publisher for more details. His answers are candid, informative and entertaining.
MEQUODA By way of background (if this is relevant), what is your educational and professional background? Schools, degrees, etc.? What did you do before www.We8There.com? Anything else we should know about you personally or professionally?
SR I have a broadcast background with 15 years in the television business as a photojournalist/engineer/producer/director… blah blah blah! I was born In Philadelphia, PA raised in Camden, NJ (infamous for its high murder rate, famous for Campbell Soups and RCA). Graduated from Camden High School in 1981 with some college in the Criminal justice field.
MEQUODA What best describes your position with www.We8There.com? Are you the founder/sole owner/president/webmaster — all of the above — or what? Was this website your creation?
SR If you look at our about we8there.com page you will see a bunch of babies running the business; let’s just say I am the biggest baby! All kidding a side, I am the chief executive officer of we8there.com and the founder.
Five years ago, I only had novice experience when it comes to computers and today, I don’t do any programming but I am fully aware of what works and what fails. While I don’t do any programming, I give my hard working team a vision and let their creative juices take control.
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MEQUODA How did you come to start www.We8There.com? What’s it all about? Who are your customers and contributors? What motivated you to launch your site?
SR We8there.com was created after an interesting experience at a restaurant in Gualala, California; our table was ignored for what seemed like forever. In that period there was the thought of an angry black man’s vision of slamming a restaurant for poor service.
Then, the thought of allowing the whole world to applaud or jeer the service at restaurants was created. Then we added bed and breakfast reviews, simply because they also serve food, and I truly enjoy lodging at a bed and breakfast, especially the ones that have no televisions or Internet access.
There is some confusion as to what we8there.com is all about. Many people think I personally reviewed all the restaurants and hotels on the site. They come to me of advice as to where to eat and look surprised when I don’t have an answer.
Some users become angry with me because they seem to think the posting on we8there.com are my personal views. I even heard of an anti-we8there.com site at one time! (Hey I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right!)
Just for the record, everyone who can form a reasonable sentence can post their reviews on we8there.com, just as long as they avoid personal attacks, profanity, and don’t work for the business in the past or the present. Oh, and you must be over 13 years of age or you need to get your parents to post for you.
MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your business model? How do you make money with a site that does not charge an access fee?
SR We8there.com was founded in August of 1999 but was officially launched back July of 2001.
The first business model was what everyone in the world said worked, joining affiliates, and getting the commission for the traffic. There was only one catch. If no one clicked the links you make zero dollars.
Pop-up ads generated great revenue but were so annoying and I really hate the flashing, blinking, strobe type banner ads. It made me feel like I was going to have a seizure!
I never like sites where you have to give them the name of your first-born and two blood samples to join. I still to this day believe that your personal information should remain personal, and after reading about Lexus-Nexus loosing 300,000 customers personal information, I feel even more strongly about it!
Our business model is a membership for businesses They pay an annual fee and the business owner can give the user more valuable information regarding their establishment without posting a review.
MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?
SR The User interface of We8there.com was completely Hand Coded, and the infrastructure (database) was constructed and hand coded from the ground up. I am not a big fan of developers who use WYSIWYG software because of cross platform issues.
MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content? How many people are involved in preparing and posting editorial content? How often do you add new content?
SR In the beginning, it was a very tedious process, simply due to the fact there was no infrastructure in place. When we added the database, the process became more user friendly, allowing us to upload reviews with ease. The hardest part now is verifying the addresses and phone numbers of the businesses entered by the reviewer.
In addition, we make every effort to verify every review for accuracy and I personally read every review ever posted. New content is added every day, not to mention Roamin’ with Riley, who was once a we8there reviewer and now is our travel editor. He is only required to send me a new article once a month, but he loves writing and sends them almost weekly.
I am trying to post a new Stanley’s Corner every month. Do you have any ideal how hard it is to come up with a different subject every month? I have much respect for writers… I really do.
MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?
SR The truth is, we8there.com has gone through changes since it was founded We8there.com continues to go through changes. Some changes are clearly visible, some are not. You will see we8there.com constantly evolving and growing in an attempt to make the users experience a memorable one.
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
SR This is a two-fold answer. Our greatest tool is our proprietary upload system, which was developed for we8there.com exclusively. This system is so robust it almost works for itself. Second, because we have one of the best design teams in the nation who are the driving force behind the we8there.com machine.
MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most online publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?
SR One must be very careful whom you choose for marketing or promotions. There are charlatans and snake oil salespersons everywhere, offering you the world…
I personally signed up for sure-fire traffic generators who offer nothing more that a great pitch. Viral marketing has been what has worked the best for us, not to mention I have become the self-appointed viral marketing expert.
If you want to market your site or any business, you have to have pride in your business, and not be afraid to tell everyone and anyone about your business. One of the things I do is personally contact some of our regular reviewers and thank them for their feedback, I am known to send out little promotional items to reviewers like mugs, tee shirts, gift certificates and high quality briefcases.
I tried an ad firm once and was completely disappointed with the results! I do however like Google Adword’s because I can track the results.
MEQUODA Do you have any advertising on your site? If so, how do you attract advertisers? Is ad revenue a significant source of your website income?
SR Currently we use a second party for distribution of our banner ads, however in the future we may visit the idea of creating a better ad delivery system. Our main revenue is generated by our premium listing for businesses worldwide. We offer the business high quality exposure and now, with our agreement with Priceline.com, the exposure will be more enhanced.
MEQUODA How do you find new users, or how do they find you? What’s the process like for increasing traffic to your site?
SR The truth is, most of the users found we8there.com via the search engines. I have respect for the search engines. We are on the first pages of most major search engines — not because we paid thousands of dollars for optimization, but because we did our research and spent countless hours trying to perfect our product. We are proof you can create a quality product on a shoestring budget.
MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?
SR Do as we did, find sources of free content you can add to your site until you could build up the traffic to the desired levels. Create a controlled environment for your content.
One of the biggest complaints is the lack of accountability on the web. As the say on CSI, trust but verify! What I am saying is, once you develop your own content model, don’t just post anything because the public is very meticulous about what they read on the web.
MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members who are seeking to develop additional revenue streams outside of advertising for their online business?
SR Caveat emptor, or in this case, developer beware. Do your homework. What may work for one business model may not have the same effect for you. Please don’t be afraid to pave a new trail and create a new trend.
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
SR My tee off from the first hole… just kidding. My greatest challenge is gaining the respect and trust of the ever-evolving public. There are so many scams on the web today and so many bad sites, some with funding. All I have is my integrity, without that I have nothing!
MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring online publishers?
SR Don’t give up. Really, there will be days when you wonder why you are even in business for yourself. Trust me, I had days when I just wanted to quit. You will have days of depression, days of grief.
If you have pride in your product you will begin to see the roots you have laid down begin to blossom. Live your dream. So many people have a dream and that is all it is — a dream. Make your dream a reality.
MEQUODA What’s the best or smartest thing you’ve done? What’s the worst?
SR The smartest thing I ever did was not taking no for an answer 15 years ago. I walked into a television station and asked for a job with no experience. Today I an multi-award winning News Photojournalist.
MEQUODA What websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?
SR I subscribe to sites that will benefit my goals like e-gullet.org, webpronews.com. I really don’t like subscribing to sites that ask for way too much personal information. My personal favorites are, U-bid.com, Yahoo.com, Google, Myytravelguide.com.
MEQUODA Which of the above is “doing it right?” (Marketing their product, building a subscriber base, providing value, etc.)
SR Yahoo and Google have their finger on the pulse when it come to marketing. They also have the money! Marketing is the key!
MEQUODA What in the future of we8there communications?
SR We have many idea’s for expansion, some which I prefer not to mention. Our main goal is and has always been to create a venue to bring to light the need for more donations to the local, national and international food banks.