Story Catcher, Larry Smith

A decade and a half ago, before undergrads could reveal their Spring Break exploits on their own blogs, there was a Daily Pennsylvanian gossip column called “Street Society,” which provided that helpful service. Of course not everyone was happy about being the subject of the latest dish. “It was page six before Page Six existed [in the New York Post],” jokes its creator, former 34th Street editor Larry Smith. “If I kept doing that, I’d either be the editor of Page Six or dead by now.”

Today, instead of telling tales on other people, he encourages them to tell their own stories, using a variety of tools ranging from videos to blogs to web comics, at his online magazine, SMITH. (The magazine title was chosen not as an attempt at self-aggrandizement, but because it’s a common last name that “represents us all,” according to the website.) Another 34th Street alumnus, Tim Barkow C’91 is the magazine’s co-founder and web designer. Senior editor Rachel Fershleiser C’02 and contributing editor Alex Koppelman C’05 round out the Penn crew.

“What separates us from a lot of reader-generated web magazines out there is that we’re a community curated by professional editors,” says Smith, whose credentials include Men’s Journal, Yahoo! Internet Life, ESPN magazine, and P.O.V. [“Start Me Up,” May 1998]. “So you get the best of both worlds. You get a lot of interesting stories and voices, but you have professional polish on it.”

Before doing that polishing, Fershleiser gets to read quite a few life stories as the coordinator of Memoirville, SMITH’s mash-up of published memoirs and works-in-progress. “You’re going to get a lot of Daddy issues, you’re going to get a lot of coming-out stories,” Fershsleiser says, “but I find for the most part it matters a lot less what the topic is and more about how compelling the writing is and how honest and relatable the voice is.”

One of her personal favorites was a six-part series by Elizabeth Koch, called the “World Tour Compatibility Test.” The author took a trip around the world with her boyfriend, planning to decide by the end of their travels whether they would break up or move in together. “You get these exotic parts where she’s in China eating fried duckbills and then she’s fighting with her boyfriend about some deep-seated issue from her childhood in Kansas.”

“With reality TV and celebrity blogs and whatever else, it becomes so accepted and expected to share the details of your personal life,” Fershleiser says. One’s comfort level with confessional writing may, in part, be generational, she admits. “I used to think about my Google image, but now there’s so much out there I don’t worry about it so much. I’m learning and sort of evolving through the people I work with.”

Though it may seem like everyone’s writing a memoir lately, many potential storytellers don’t consider themselves “real writers.” The magazine is happy to provide a nudge with invitations to tell in a hundred words or less about brushes with the law, celebrity encounters, or the origins of one’s nickname, and with projects like the Six-Word Memoir, Fershleiser says. SMITH is putting the best into a book due out in January, featuring the drastically abridged life-stories of the famous, the ordinary, and the name-sounds-vaguely-familiar.

The two-year-old magazine has yet to make a profit. Smith freelances on the side and most of the other editors hold down full-time jobs to pay their bills. “I think if you’re doing a startup, you’d better be optimistic or you’re in the wrong business,” he says. He extends his optimism to the medium itself, and to the tools that continually make it easier for more people to participate: “It’s a great time to be a media maker.”

 

Mirror to the Merchants, Brett Hurt

Your finger is poised on the purchase button for that hedge trimmer at the perfect price. But then your eyes wander above the gleaming image and you see the product only gets two out of five stars. Warning bells go off as you click and read a few scalding customer reviews. So you keep looking.

Merchant nightmare? It shouldn’t be, argues Brett Hurt WG’99, founder of the Austin, Texas-based Bazaarvoice. His profitable, two-year-old Internet company brings ratings and reviews to the websites of businesses like Burpee, Petco, and Walmart.

“It’s extremely counterintuitive to put the bad with the good,” Hurt admits. “If you’re a marketer, you’re [taught] only to talk about your products in the most positive light. We’ve been trained on Pavlovian theory: Ring the bell and the dog starts to salivate. But the reality is that consumers today are more like cats,” he says. “They’re very finicky online and are able to zip around and learn all the information about your products, good and bad, through blogs and other networks.”

Because that word of mouth is also a “mirror” of the face-to-face conversations that are happening offline, Hurt says marketers would do well to pay attention to it.

In addition, he says, “We’ve found that negative reviews actually get more people to buy [from a website], because they trust they’re shopping in an authentic environment where the merchant stands behind their products.”

On the average e-commerce site, less than three percent of visitors actually pull out their credit cards, Hurt says. But when a site posts reviews, customers “can touch and feel and experience that product through other people like them” and that purchasing rate goes up. At the same time, product returns drop because customers know what to expect and are “much less likely to be negatively surprised.”

Hurt, the former CEO of Coremetrics (and creator of a slew of other Internet startups from his days in Wharton’s MBA program), finds a competitive advantage to conducting business from his native Austin. “We’re one of the only Web 2.0 companies here and we were recently rated one of the best places to work in Austin,” he says. “We have a very good reputation in a smaller city that has tremendous engineering talent, and people are generally more loyal here than they are in Silicon Valley because, I think, there aren’t 100 other companies they could go work at.”

And because the cost of living in Austin isn’t as high, work is “intense” but not all consuming, Hurt adds. He’s grateful for his four years out in Silicon Valley though. “You do learn to think big out there because of all your encounters in the entrepreneurial world.”

It was in his hometown where Hurt had his earliest exposure to computers, however. His grandfather, who worked in the math department at UT-Austin, chipped in to buy him one when he was seven. “My mom sat down and taught me Basic programming as she learned it herself.” At age 10 he started his own bulletin-board system. “I was communicating with other geeks from all over the nation, and eventually from all over the world.” It wasn’t a popular thing to do growing up, Hurt says. “But it was my passion.”

Today he shares that passion with Wharton students, returning to the school as a frequent speaker. “Out of everything I did at Wharton, I got the most value out of other alumni entrepreneurs who came back to speak to us and made me realize that if they can do it, I can do it.”

 

Trendspotter, Scott Rafer

So that’s Wolf Blitzer in the party photo, but who’s that person standing next to the newscaster? An Internet tool that allows you to click on a face and instantly put a name to it is under development by the Danish Internet company Polar Rose. One of its consultants is Scott Rafer Eng’90 W’90, who has managed to found or head up a string of prominent web projects despite being “a chump” about the Internet in its earlier days.

Rafer admits he barely knew what the Web was when he was a Management & Technology major at Penn. Classmates at the engineering school “would be messing around with the Internet in the back of the room and I’d be chatting with a beer in my hand and probably ignoring the whole thing,” he says.

He calls himself a “fake engineer” whose father had to persuade him to stay in Penn’s engineering program several times. “I’m glad I did it because it provided me with a technical understanding I would not have otherwise had. But I’m a sales guy … I could never build things.”

After Penn Rafer quickly burnt out on his first career, investment banking, and started running the Internet products groups at Kodak Hollywood. In 2001 he launched his “first real dotcom,” WiFinder, which helps users track down wireless hot spots around the country.

One of his next ventures was Mashery, where he’s still a director. It addresses some of the technical stresses of the Web 2.0 world: “Part of the criteria for being Web 2.0 is offering your website as a service, meaning that other people’s websites can access your software using their machines,” Rafer explains. “With traditional sites, humans show up at the front door. They do something. They leave. In Web 2.0, humans show up at the front door, but also other people’s Web servers show up at the side door and take a huge amount of resources to do something very productive.”

None of the security features, “the gritty technical stuff that’s been done over the years to make a site safe,” works for that side door, he says. “We’re quickly building a business being the lock on that side door, being a way that sites can offer Web services to those people but do so safely and properly and not have an outage and people breaking in.” Rafer’s had his hand in other projects as well. Search engines like Feedster and Fresher Information? Been there. Hotel finder BookBroadband? Done that. His most recent full-time gig was as CEO of MyBlogLog, a site that allows users to connect with various blogging communities.

When MyBlogLog was sold to Yahoo earlier this year, Rafer stayed on just long enough to help with the transition. “After I come out of a start-up, for whatever reason, I tend to do a bunch of part-time stuff to get acquainted with what’s the latest and greatest,” he says.

That’s where projects like Polar Rose come in. The logistics are still being ironed out as beta-testers forage the Internet for faces. Once it’s released to the public, users will be able to look up, confirm, or edit the identity of a growing number of people on any site, and possibly match those images to others like them across the Web.

If those prospects sound slightly ominous, Rafer argues that the technology is in as good hands as any. “The CEO’s parents were in U.N. refugee management for decades [and he realizes] that if it’s done irresponsibly, it’s going to get political dissidents killed.” The company is working on an opt-out policy so people who would rather keep their names out of the limelight can have their faces blocked from the system. (This would not be an option for public figures like George Bush, Rafer points out.)

Chances are Rafer’s own face will have popped up in more places by the time this article comes out. “Sometime this fall I’ll hop back into my own thing,” he says. “I’ve got 15 lunatic ideas a day as to what it should be.”

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