Venture Downtown Showcases Silicon Alley Hopefuls

Also, Slate and Deja.com introduce their redesigns.
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If you're looking for a preview of the next group of Internet IPOs from New York's

Silicon Alley

, a good place to start is the

Hilton New York & Towers

in midtown Manhattan tomorrow morning.

That's the location of the third

Venture Downtown

, an almost annual one-day event where 26 privately held companies will make presentations to an audience made up of investors and venture capitalists. (Venture Downtown was held in 1996 and 1997 but not last year.)

In the previous two conferences (which were actually held in downtown Manhattan), investors got early looks at now-public companies such as

iVillage

(IVIL)

,

MiningCo.com

(MINE)

,

Multex.com

(MLTX)

and

EarthWeb

(EWBX)

. Among the presenting class were

Medscape

and

Juno Online Services

, both of which have filed to go public this year, as well as firms that were later acquired, like

Yoyodyne Entertainment

, snapped up by

Yahoo!

(YHOO)

last year.

At this year's event, one company is already slated to go public.

BigStar Entertainment

, an online retailer of videos and DVDs, filed IPO documents Friday. CEO David Friedensohn says he'll be presenting anyway. Other companies to look for include

Flooz.com

, an online gift certificate clearing house headed by iVillage co-founder Robert Levitan;

Nerve.com

, a Web site devoted to "literate smut"; and

Virtual Growth

, an accounting services company that works with its clients over the Internet.

Late registration for

Venture Downtown costs $650. Be warned, though, that not every money-seeking company will be a success.

Netcast Communications

, a 1997 presenter, specialized in broadcasting audio programs over the Net. That business worked out well for

broadcast.com

(BCST)

, which is being acquired by Yahoo!. But no such success story for Netcast, which ceased operations only a few months after it ventured downtown.

Clean Slate

To get an idea of the little things that Web sites can do to boost their revenues, take a look at

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

online magazine

Slate, scheduled to launch a redesigned version of its site today.

Slate, which dropped its

subscription fee in February for full access to current stories on the site, has instituted several changes that it hopes will beef up its ad revenue and maybe even make for happier readers. (Slate still charges for archived stories and other special features.)

Previously, each page ran one banner ad at the top; now, there are two ads for each page you load up -- one at the top and the other in the right-hand column -- doubling the ad inventory.

Furthermore, Slate has made it easier for readers to navigate the site. Previously, the only way to move between stories was to backtrack to the table of contents and then move to the next story from there. Now each page has more story links at the top of the page and on the left-hand column. The idea is to make the site stickier, says publisher Scott Moore, using the Internet industry jargon for creating a site that encourages visitors to hang around. "If they click around and read more articles, oh, by the way, that gives us more ads to sell," he says.

The biggest driver of Slate's traffic, of course, was the decision in February to open up most of the site. The online magazine's unique visitors increased from 239,000 in January to 411,000 in February and 697,000 in March, according to

Media Metrix

. But other smaller changes are also having a big effect. When the

MSN.com Web site, Microsoft's portal site, started placing a regular headline link last week to Slate on its home page, Slate's daily viewership jumped an additional 20,000, Moore says.

There are no plans for Microsoft to spin off Slate as a separate publicly held company, Moore says, as some companies have or contemplated doing with their own online subsidiaries.

New Deja News

More makeovers. The

Deja.com Web site is scheduled to debut this morning as the reincarnation of

Deja News.

Created in 1995, Deja News has been

the

place to search and read through postings on Internet news groups -- discussion areas like alt.tv.x-files or misc.activism.progressive. Well, that's the old Deja News, says CEO Tom Phillips, formerly president of

Disney's

(DIS) - Get Report

ESPN Internet Ventures

and

ABC News Internet Ventures

.

The new Deja.com is "the word-of-mouth network," says Phillips, who came aboard in December. "It's what do you want to know about stuff." What that means is that Deja.com is creating 400 different categories at its launch for people to share their opinions on, such as, for example, what's the best Japanese car? Or who's the best movie actor around? Readers can rate individual entries in each category -- ranking, say, the

Honda Accord's

comfort and reliability on a five-point scale -- add a comment or just surf through other people's opinions.

Sounds nice, but is it a business? Yes, says Phillips, who hopes to have thousands of categories by the end of the year. Each item, or entry, he explains, is an advertising opportunity. If someone is checking out other people's opinions of a car, for example, that Web page is a perfect place for a car dealer to place an ad.

"The natural partners in all of this stuff are the retailers," Phillips says. "Retailers love what we're doing."

Already Phillips has signed a deal with

Inktomi

(INKT)

that links specific products on the Deja.com site to Inktomi's new shopping engine, which people can use to find online stores carrying that particular item. Phillips also has plans to link from products on the site to online auction sites elsewhere. "They're very interested," he says. "We just haven't done it yet."