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Portal, plain and simple

Stewart Ogilby of Sarasota is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs hoping to offer alternatives to the cluttered, feature-laden starting points on the Web.

By DAVE GUSSOW/Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 1999


SARASOTA -- The Internet has plenty of places that look like online flea markets, entrepreneur Stewart Ogilby says.

What surfers want, he thinks, is a place to find interesting sites without being bombarded with ads and other distractions.

A place such as his Big Eye (www.bigeye.com), which he hopes will be a portal that stands out from a growing field of sites that want to be the first page surfers see when they go online.

"I'm not sure there is a portal market," said Ogilby, 66, who got into computers and the Internet because of a promise to his granddaughter. "I think there's a bookmark market."

The definition of a portal changes almost as fast as the Internet. Many started as search engines, such as Yahoo! and Excite. They evolved into sites that offered everything from searches to free e-mail to chat rooms to shopping that wanted to lure surfers browsing its pages. That, they hoped, would build a base, and advertisers would follow.

As they continue to fiddle with the formula, industry executives worry that they can't get enough advertising to support their efforts. Some experts have predicted that only a few "brand" portals, such as America Online, Yahoo! and Microsoft, will survive, although some portals that serve specific audiences also might make it.

It is estimated that more than 500 portals are on the Web -- including portals to search for portals. But the numbers are not discouraging those who think they can carve out a place in the cybermarket. And some are in the Tampa Bay area. At least two other locally produced portals have appeared, hoping to attract surfers: TampaWired.com and TampaBayStart.com.

"There are a lot of portals out there," Chad Everding of TampaWired.com said. "But it's still really hard to find local information on the Internet."

Beyond local, a key word at TampaWired is free. It has free links to local sites, and will build and maintain free sites for local businesses. Everding is one of nine college-age people working on TampaWired, which hopes advertising will support it. It started with some financial sponsors and a loan.

"The hardest thing we have to deal with is people don't believe us when we say it's free," said Everding, who is one semester shy of earning a degree at the University of Florida.

Adrian Wyllie, whose family has been in the Tampa Bay area since 1918, also thinks local will work. He acquired TampaBayStart.com, one of 36 such sites he hopes to start for communities around the country.

"Each site will have a person there to answer questions, maybe not live, but in an e-mail," Wyllie said. "We're trying to put more of a human face on a launch portal."

Wyllie is continuing in his regular job as an information technology administrator for BryCoat Titanium Nitride while setting up TampaBayStart.com. "Until we have financial backing, I can't afford to devote full time to it," said Wyllie, who with his father is supplying the money for the venture.

His selling point: When Tampa Bay area surfers go into his site, they don't have to customize it to get local news, weather and sports. It is always there.

While each site hopes to get enough attention and advertisers to stand out, Ogilby thinks Big Eye has an advantage because it is 4 years old and has earned attention for its efforts, including a 1995 mention in Newsweek.

"I have a fan club," Ogilby said. "I have a cult following. There's nothing like it. It's got me, and it's got everybody else who goes to it. It's mushroomed so wildly."

Ogilby's Internet story began in 1993, when his 7-year-old granddaughter asked him to help her learn about computers. Ogilby, who had avoided computers because of his "advanced technophobia," agreed to help her. When he realized what he had done, he, well, panicked. He rushed out, bought a 386 computer and started learning all he could, including teaching himself DOS.

Ogilby evolved into a self-described full-fledged computer nerd over the next year or so. He even did some computer troubleshooting for a while, but the Internet came along and hooked him. He wanted to create a site for his grandchildren to use as a resource for their schoolwork, based on the bookmarks he was saving from his Web surfing. The eye in Big Eye came from one of the first graphics he successfully downloaded.

He started E-mail Club, which brings in enough money to pay Big Eye's expenses. It has more than 500 members around the world, who pay a one-time fee of $10 to join.

One of the promises made on the E-mail Club page is that the fees help keep Big Eye free of advertising, and last year friends persuaded Ogilby that his creation was a worthy contender in the portal wars. Beyond the challenge of competing in a crowded market, Ogilby faces the quandary of how to maintain what he sees as a special site without bringing in advertising that is intrusive.

"I don't want to sell advertising that makes it look like a flea market," said Ogilby, who won't discuss too many specifics of his business plan. He did suggest, however, that corporate sponsorships, such as those seen on public television, might be one idea. He also said that a site called bigeyemall.com is in the works, though he didn't provide details.

Untouchable for advertisers, he says, will be Big Eye's dozen core pages, each with links to 100 sites. Topics range from the eBay auction site to information on the Crusades, literature, history, politics -- you name it. The sites are suggested by Big Eye fans, Ogilby says, and he makes the decisions on what to include.

Big Eye recently did a private stock offering to raise $1.2-million, which will help promote the site beyond the Net word of mouth. In his office, Ogilby has pins in a U.S. map to show where libraries, universities and others have linked to the Big Eye, as well as pins showing Internet service providers that are using his brochures to sell service and to encourage use of the Big Eye as a start page for surfers.

Ogilby happily shares accolades for his site, including a reference in Knowledge Quest, the journal of the American Association of School Librarians, that said "Big Eye Provides Big Help."

Two of Ogilby's friends, Lars Nilbrink and Charles Arnold, also of Sarasota, serve with him on the board of directors. Both, naturally, think he has a winner.

"Me-tooism has taken over the Web," said Arnold, who, beyond content differences, thinks that Big Eye's lack of debt will let them concentrate on building the site.

Ogilby had retired to Sarasota in 1986, after a career that ranged from sales to operating a real estate office in Columbus, Ohio. (He also gained notoriety in 1983 for fighting a jaywalking ticket in Columbus. He said he was simply helping someone cross a busy highway.)

The Big Eye brought him out of retirement, and he is enthusiastic about the effort. But even that has its limits.

He figures four years of building the site as a business will be enough. Then, at 70, he can retire again.


-- Times news researcher Catherine Wos contributed to this report, which includes information from Times wires.

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