Comparison shopping online is hard work and finding unbiased is information rare even as e-tail sales continue to boom. Jupiter Communications says online retail sales now top $12 billion annually and will climb to $41 billion by 2002. Moreover, that’s only the tip of the Internet consumer iceberg. Turns out that another 60 percent of surfers use information gleaned online to buy stuff in the bricks-and-mortar world.
Productopia President and Chief Executive Officer Roger Neal thinks it ought to be a whole lot easier to make e-comparisions especially in light of studies indicating that more than three-fourth of consumers online were looking for buying information of some sort.
So, in the spring of 1998, he quit his cushy job as executive director and general manager of America Online Inc. to start Productopia along with partner Bob Novotny, who’d been an executive producer and development consultant for Netscape’s Netcenter.
Productopia aims to deliver free, detailed, up-to-date, savvy, independent product reviews and merchandise comparisons in dozens of consumer categories, including apparel, appliances, computers, electronics, kitchenware, travel and toys.
Visitors can browse categories and subcategories of concise reports assembled by the firm’s 20-person editorial staff, aided by some 40 freelancers, plus reviews from well-known consumer magazines with whom Productopia has partners, including Harper’s Bazaar, Photography, ZD Labs, Mademoiselle, Electronic Musician, MacUser, Mountain Biker, New Media and PC World.
With seed funding from Neal and Dave Pell of Arba Seed Investments, San Francisco-based Productopia secured $6 million in initial funding last June in its first venture round led by @Ventures III and including Amicus Investments, Angel Investors, LLC, Arba Seed Investment Group, Osprey Ventures, plus three individual investors: Ben Rosen, chairman of Compaq, Johathan Bulkeley, CEO of barnsandnoble.com and Sunil Paul, CEO of BrightLight Technologies. It was Paul, by the way, who introduced Neal to Pell to get the enterprise started in the first place.
“Productopia provides a valuable service for everyone who uses the Internet for information on a product purchase,” said Brad Garlinghouse of @ Ventures in announcing the VC round. “It is both a valuable source of information and reviews and a convenient way to shop,” he adds.
Productopia can say it offers “shopping convenience” along with buying information in that it provides “Where-to-Buy” links to e-merchants on its page in each category. Vendors pay both placement fees and click-through purchase percentages for the links, generating what Productopia expects to be the bulk of its revenues. It also sells banner ads.
Productopia discusses brands and doesn’t make vendor recommendations in its texts. “We keep up the Chinese Wall between editorial and advertising,” says Productopia spokesperson Bill Evans. “The sales people don’t start selling until the editorial content is complete and posted anyway. So there isn’t even a temptation, much less a practical way to change content to suit advertisers..” he adds.
The company also is developing online yellow pages search features provided by Info-Space of Redmond, Washing, An e-Bay tie-in also is planned, along with price-comparison features to be provided by mySimon of San Francisco, according to Neal.
Neal said the company’s venture capital backers have leveraged their investments with valuable contacts and suggestions that have helped Productobia line up an impressive list of e-commerce partners in a short time. These include BestBuy, The Good Guys, Wards, 800.com, BabyCenter, Crutchfield.com, FogDog, iMall and netmarket.
Productopia plans an IPO “in two to three years depending on market conditions,” Neal said.
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