A Network of Social Networks
Clarence Wooten used to call himself an "entre-poor-neur."
That was back in the 1990s. Wooten -- Baltimore-born, Howard County-bred, Johns Hopkins University-educated -- had created three technology companies, all while still in his 20s. He had spent so much time on those businesses that it took him seven years to graduate college.
The first business, called Envision Designs, created computer animations for architects. The second, Metamorphosis Studios, developed multimedia for CD-ROMs (remember those?) and later was a Web site maker. Last, in April 1999 he launched ImageCafe, which sold templates of Web sites to small businesses that wanted their own place online.
He loved creating companies, but they didn't earn him much money. Then he struck gold. Just six months after ImageCafe opened shop, he sold it to Network Solutions, the domain name company. At the height of the dotcom boom, his young company drew $23 million, though some of that was in stock. And we all know what happened over the next few years to dotcom stocks.
Wooten wouldn't say how much he earned from that score, but it's been supporting him and his family since. Now he's trying to launch his next big bet. For two years he has quietly been growing CollectiveX, his new Internet play.
"It certainly changed my life," Wooten said of his InternetCafe sale. Then again, he said, "It didn't stop me from being hungry. ... I have to be building or creating something. It's not necessarily about the money. The money is how you keep score. It's about building something that people want and need."
Buzzword alert: CollectiveX is yet another name in the world of social media. Most of the better known social networking Web sites connect people with profile pages to each other. Facebook focuses on school friends and colleagues, MySpace has a knack for music, LinkedIn connects professionals. Rather than being a single network itself, CollectiveX lets groups create their own social networks around particular topics.
"We're trying to empower you to create your own Facebook," Wooten said.
Around 14,000 such groups have been created, most of them private. A directory of public sites is at Group Sites. Companies, clubs and other like-minded people are creating sites. The largest and most popular include the UrbanPhilly.com Professional Network; the International Network of Social Entrepreneurs; and NolaYurp, to support New Orleans. Companies and organizations using the site have included the Nature Conservancy and an international group of consulting company Accenture's alumni.
Based in Columbia, the site's audience has been doubling every few months, now reaching 2.5 million page views of month, Wooten said. It has generated some buzz in tech circles. TechCrunch, the influential blog about technology news, has written about it occasionally, with editor Michael Arrington once saying "CollectiveX is better than LinkedIn."
"Whether you're talking about MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, I call those the mega social networks that revolve around individuals and their friends and contacts," Wooten said. "I wanted to create a platform where I could create my own miniature social network...defined around a particular group I belong to."
CollectiveX, on its own, is not a destination site. It is simply a Web application for building social networks. And it goes beyond what Facebook and others offer, Wooten said. Groups created on CollectiveX can put up online calendars, store files and start e-mail lists, for instance. Individuals on the CollectiveX network have a personal and a professional profile, and they can choose which one to affiliate with a particular group.
Most of this is free, but CollectiveX offers additional features--such as more storage, advertising free pages, secured transactions--for an additional fee. He calls the arrangement a "free-mium."
CollectiveX is in some ways similar to Ning, a site that has generated loads of buzz started by Netscape founder Marc Andreessen.
CollectiveX currently has six full-timers on staff and one part-timer. Originally the premium features were to pay for the business model, but the audience's growth, Wooten said, has made an advertising-focused model more attractive. The site's audience is still quite modest--too small to be counted by ComScore, one of the industry's traffic warehouses. Quantcast, another service, estimates the number of unique visitors to CollectiveX on a monthly basis at just around 10,000.
Wooten knows he needs to ramp that up. He is searching for venture capital to help expand the business, but little has come so far.
"We're in a space and time where venture capital flows freely, but it just doesn't flow freely in this region," he said. "I believe we'd be farther ahead had we been in another environment."
Wooten has thought about relocating to the West Coast, but "resisted it" because of his family.
April 18, 2008; 8:23 AM ET
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