Building the Fence from Scratch
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What do you do when you have an idea you believe in, but are skeptical about dealing with VC's cringing at the very mention of a content-based site?
For one local entrepreneur the answer was to dig deep down in his own pockets.
Nick Jenkins, a former exec at the now-defunct Hardware.com, this week launched his latest site, TheFence.com, with no help from the venture community.
The new website, aimed at those who love to argue, contains over 270 debate topics. Each debate thread also includes a 400-500 word background article on the issue and customized lists of books, documentaries, and boxed set videos.
A former lawyer, Jenkins will be the first to admit that he loves to argue. When he couldn't find any portal on the Internet to express this passion, he decided to create a place where people could come to debate any topic, and began raising money and building the newly minted TheFence.com.
"My timing could not have been worse," recalls Jenkins, who began his search for funding last April. "This was almost to the day the same time the NASDAQ began its decline and venture capitalists started tightening their purse strings. Angel investors started seeing the possibility of six-figure losses with their existing investments and they weren't willing to invest in an idea that had advertising fees as one of its revenue streams."
After 3-weeks of half-hearted attempts to secure funding, Jenkins decided to bite the bullet and throw his life savings, including the money he had made on the sale of his company Superbuild to Hardware.com, into building TheFence.com.
"You reach a point in your life where you say that you have to take the risk and do it, so that's what I did," says the CEO. "I pretty much burned through most of my life savings, but I think we have a pretty impressive site up."
With a small virtual staff of about 15 people all over the state, ranging from his buddies to a columnist to an old friend's wife, Jenkins built the content and technology behind TheFence.com, paying his staff with his life savings.
According to the CEO, while the site will initially rely on a mix of advertising and an offering of customized lists of books, documentaries, and boxed set videos, he is most excited about the site's ability to serve merchandise offerings tailored to the member's ideology.
"We'll show conservatives merchandise written for conservatives on a given debate, which will be different from the merchandise shown to liberals or libertarians on the same debate," explains Jenkins.
This functionality is expected to be up and running within the next few months, pending the completion of a number of databases.
With the site now launched, Jenkins plans on once again approaching the Angel community to seek his next round of funding.
The CEO hopes that this round will be different, as he has an actual product to place in front of potential investors.
"The climate in the middle of the year 1999 was 'we'll buy your idea as an idea and a business plan,'" Says Jenkins. "By the time I was coming out in May, you actually had to have a product to show people."
Jenkins' biggest fear is that investors will not give The Fence a chance once they hear words like "community," "content" and "advertising," all of which are associated with falling stock prices and broken revenue models.
"They see 125,000 words worth of content and they think 'content sites don't make money,' never mind that we're not a content site in the Salon or Slate sense and, unlike almost every other content site I'm aware of, we've monetized our content with extensive, personalize content offerings."
While Jenkins may be nervous about having his life savings on the line, he is confident that once investors