OPW INTERVIEW -- Jan 17, 2006 -- Ben Sun is Founder and CEO of Community Connect which operates niche online dating leaders Blackplanet, Asian Avenue, and Migente. I met up with Ben at his New York offices.
What inspired you to start Community Connect?
In my former life I was an investment banker for Merill Lynch working with technology companies. I was working on a deal with a company called Firefly, which was started by folks out of MIT and Harvard. They built a collaborative filtering technology that compared similar interests of people in order to provide recommendations thereby harnessing the power of word of mouth. They were showcasing their technology on a website, Firefly.com, that was an online community for music and movie afficionados. It was my first experience with online community and I fell in love with it. It was 1996 and there weren't many experiences out there on the Web like what they were doing. I remember creating a profile mentioning that I liked U2 and I was contacted by other users interested in U2. I was blown away that I was meeting complete strangers but building friendships based on similar interests. I then realized that the Internet was not only this "Information Superhighway" but maybe even more importantly a platform to easily connect people. One night, I was talking with some friends over drinks and we were talking about online community/social networking and felt that it was a great application for other real world communities. As an Asian American that grew up in New York I feel that communities based on race or ethnicity have incredibe affinities and are be perfect for online community services. After talking with the cofounders, we wrote the business plan for Community Connect in our apartment and started building the first website, AsianAvenue.com.
How long did it take to get to your first million users?
We didn't get to our first million until 2.5 years in. Not until we launched BlackPlanet.com. Once we launched BlackPlanet.com, we were soon generating over a million page views a day with no marketing budget. This took a lot of companies $15 to $20 million to do.
Do you regard the Community Connect sites as social networks or dating sites?
Both, I think it's an online community where we try to replicate what happens in real world communities. People come online to find friends, jobs, dates and learn and share new/information that affect their community. All the things that happen in real world communities reflects what happens online. We probably skew more towards social networking because a large portion of our users come on to the site to meet new friends. This is the most popular activity. Making friends and helping people express themselves. Also, we help our users share opinions and ideas with other folks in their community.
What do you think of Myspace?
It's a good site. They've done similar things to what we've done in terms of going after certain niche groups. Something we've been doing for 9 yrs now. They focus on the youth market with a strong emphasis on music.
How have you grown the sites up until now?
Completely by word of mouth. That's how our userbase has grown. Even when we launched Black Planet, we earmarked million dollars for marketing but 2 to 3 weeks after the launch we realised we shouldn't spend it on marketing as we needed the money for hardware and software to support the natural growth. Our philosophy is towards providing a really strong product and targeting real world communities with incredible affinity offline. Then people talk about it, online and offline. That's what happened with us.
However, we recently hired a new VP of Marketing and will be implementing a number of online marketing efforts. We are excited to see that further our growth.
Will you be adding more verticals in the future?
We plan to. Probably sometime next year. We're still trying to figure out which ones we want to go after next.
I understand you're working on some considerable site improvements. What can we expect to see in 2006?
A lot of enhancements across the board. We're ramping up more features on the social networking side and the dating side. We're expanding the amount of content, especially in terms of entertainment content, also health and news. We'll expand into some mobile services as well. So we have a lot on
our plate to say the least. Our core demographic is 16 to 34 year olds, and they tend to be more mobile oriented. We believe mobile services should be less about replicating features. We're interested in taking features people wish they had access to on a more frequent basis via a mobile device. One
of our most popular applications is messaging via our "notes" system. We've discovered there's a high amount of interest in accessing notes via SMS.
What advice would you give to other industry executives?
At end of the day it's about knowing exactly what customer needs you're trying to serve and distilling your services down to the essentials of what people are trying to do to benefit their lives. This mindset would be the easiest approach for delivering the best product out there. Overall, I feel the online personals business has really evolved over the last year or two and are innovating and offering terrific new services.
What kind of partnerships are you seeking?
The companies we work with are those that bring value to our users that we can't easily bring. So, our partnership with Monster gave us much stronger relationships with employers, and companies that are reaching a diverse candidate pool. Through the Monster partnership, we now have relationships
with over 30,000 corporate clients. We reach 5 to 6 million of color in the US every month so that kind of partnership works out well given that we connect our millions of members to the corporate world through Monster. These kind of partnerships are needed in order to bring value.
We've invested a lot over the last 12 to 18 months on really rebuilding existing infrastructure and adding more senior personnel. Our goal is to take our three existing properties to a new level, and then target new verticals and communities to grow into. So we expect 2006 to be a very big year for us.