It seems like eons ago that people believed there was money to be made just by putting fun bits of information onto the Internet. Dating sites, sure. Commentary on news, maybe. Portals for zealous magnolia growers, not so much.
Alas, the same capital markets that let these starry-eyed companies be born turned on them at the turn of the century, and dot-com gravediggers gleefully buried the good ideas with the bad. Today's venture-seeking entrepreneurs continue to pay for the sins of their failed brethren. Washington's technology focus has largely shifted to the world of government contractors so befitting these serious times.
Except it seems that some didn't get that memo on the inevitable failure of niche Web firms. The survivors and successors don't have Ping-Pong tables or company convertibles, but the money at a few companies is enough for their employees to eke out a living free of security clearances.
Jit Singh Vohraaka Lak Vohra just likes to have a good time. Vohra, originally from India, came to the United States on a journalism scholarship and worked short stints at Washingtonian magazine and the Washington Business Journal. His real affection for the District, however, grew in the after-hours social and networking events he would attend "eight nights a week."
In 1995 Vohra quit his job and launched PartyDigest with $7,000 of his own money. The hope was that his knowledge of the Washington social scene would be valuable to others looking for some action.
"I realized there was a niche for people in their late twenties and thirties and early forties who are sick of the bar scene and want to go to these events. But there was nothing to bring them together," Vohra said. "Our philosophy is you'll hear about things that you won't hear about any other place."
PartyDigest is a weekly e-mail newsletter with listings of charity balls, self-improvement seminars and other local events. It was slow going at first, Vohra said, with doubts creeping up at every turn. But within a few years, his firm's growth on the Web exploded, and his idea seemed more valuable than he imagined. Bigger players such as NetCalendar and the Republican National Committee wanted to buy services from PartyDigest, and the company grew to 25 employees.
But the money dried up almost as quickly as it flooded in, until "we woke up one morning and found that we were facing extinction, like all of our customers," Vohra said. So the company retrenched and began focusing more on the weekly e-mails that were its staple.
Now PartyDigest, of Springfield, sends newsletters to about 200,000 subscribers in eight cities throughout the United States. Advertisers pay about $325 for a single listing of their event. Vohra said he expects the company's revenue to top $500,000 this year. With five employees who work from home and a few part-timers, PartyDigest has modest ambitions for growth, although Vohra said it has been able to keep about 60 percent of its revenue as profit.
And although Vohra's heaviest partying days may be behind him -- he will become a father in a few weeks -- he said he plans to run PartyDigest for decades to come.
DCpages.com's roots stretch back to 1994, when Jack Hurwitz set up an online bulletin board for the Washington area. In 1996 Hurwitz met Luke Wilbur through a mutual friend, and while sitting in a booth at Dave & Buster's in Rockville, the two engaged in a life-changing conversation on the merits of community building and other philosophical topics.
"And then [Hurwitz] turned around to me and he sold DCpages to me for $1," said Wilbur, who still owns the Bethesda-based community site but says he prefers to think of himself as the Ringo Starr figure in a band of contributors.
Like PartyDigest, DCpages -- which is run by Wilbur's umbrella company, Infohall -- rode the bigger dot-com wave and was nearly acquired by San Francisco-based Craigslist (which has its own listings for the District). But the deal fell through, and DCpages remained independent and privately funded.
The site is an eclectic mix of Web links and commentary pertaining to all things Washington. Categories include dining, music, museums, real estate and history, and most are maintained by volunteer contributors, Wilbur said. The firm also created similar sites for San Francisco and Phoenix.
"We decided, you know what, we're not anything else but a community -- let's maintain it and be a community center again," he said.
"I always think that if we had gotten a lot of money, we would have failed. The vision would have gotten clouded."
Wilbur doesn't expect to become a rich man through DCpages but says the company brings in enough money through advertisements and donations to allow him to make a decent living.
If you plan to party, shop or dine, it helps to know what it's like outdoors, so Gaithersburg-based AWS Convergence Technologies runs several online weather-related operations. Those include WeatherBug, a program that has about 20 million users signed up for local weather information. WeatherBug, which AWS executives say is profitable, comes in an ad-free version for about $20 a year, but the bulk of revenue from the service comes from online advertising for the free version.
AWS, founded in 1993, licenses local weather information to other broadcasters. But WeatherBug, which was launched less than three years ago, now accounts for 50 percent of the company's revenue, said Andy Jedynak, AWS's WeatherBug senior vice president.
Ellen McCarthy's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Download columnist Shannon Henry is on leave; her column will resume when she returns.