Startup iBelong has roots in AOL, political sites

Startup iBelong has roots in AOL, political sites

Washington Business Journal – July 27, 2007
by Ben Hamme  /  Staff Reporter


Joanne S. Lawton

They
belong: Veterans of Northern Virginia’s 1990s technology boom, Ben
Turner, left, and Bob Smith have launched iBelong Networks, a way for
membership-based groups to create social networking sites.

The founder of AOL’s Digital City and a developer of online presidential campaigns have joined forces at iBelong Networks Inc.
to offer groups a platform to create their own online social networks.
The pair have raised a $1.5 million first round of venture capital.

Bob Smith, who managed AOL’s network of community-oriented sites,
and Ben Turner, a former vice president at Internet companies VeriSign
Inc. and Network Solutions,
have worked together at Arlington-based iBelong since March. IBelong
provides a Web-based service for building membership sites with
features for aggregating content, placing online ads and handling
e-commerce transactions or collecting donations.

The company aims to provide tools for groups as small as private
school parent-teacher associations or as large as multi-million-member
advocacy groups to build social networks that offer content, provide a
way to raise money, organize volunteers and even build a brand or
market a set of products and services.

"This is the next step in what I was trying to do when I was
running AOL’s community and Digital City," Smith said. "It was hard to
get down to a level that was very personal with Digital City."

Digital City offers information about restaurants, bars, events and
entertainment in Washington, New York and Chicago. Smith said iBelong
users will be able to do for themselves what AOL hired a staff to do.

"This is not just another sort of me-too kind of Web 2.0 social
networking thing," said Jonathan Aberman of Amplifier Venture Partners,
the McLean firm that led iBelong’s funding. "We often describe this
business as building AOL from the inside out."

The company generated more than $1 million in revenue in the last
year and has more than 1 million members using sites it helped build.
Smith started iBelong in February 2006 to provide consulting and
technology related to online community building, and the company traded
stock for technology and customers from Vienna consulting firm Mita Group Inc. in mid-June. Turner, a founder and part owner of Mita Group, has worked with Smith since March as president of iBelong.

The company’s work includes building an online community site
around former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s various issue-oriented
pages, developing the Serve­Net.org site as an online way to manage 2.5
million volunteer opportunities at 10,000 nonprofits and consulting
with an unidentified active Republican presidential campaign with a
list of 1.5 million supporters’ names. The company also developed a
site for a former Republican presidential candidate whose name the
company would not disclose.

IBelong charges a setup fee and monthly subscription fees. It also
collects revenue from online ads and transactions the company’s hosted
services enable. The company is targeting large not-for-profit advocacy
and political groups seeking to build online communities to support
their goals, smaller consumer-oriented groups such as a homeowners
association and groups newly formed around an interest or activity such
as a high school sports league.

A typical client with 3,000 to 5,000 members would pay $15,000 to
$20,000 to set up a site with features for users and pay $1,000 to
$2,000 per month to keep it going, along with fees paid based

Ri Pierce-Grove, an analyst who covers social networking for
research company Datamonitor PLC, is seeing a proliferation of
companies offering platform technologies for groups to set up their own
membership sites."Competition is intensifying," she said. "This has all
the signs of an early market, a young market."

Venture capitalists are pouring money into companies such as Silver Spring-based Freewebs Inc.
that offer free and for-pay services that individuals can use to build
their own Internet sites, blogs, photo albums and other online
features.

E-mail: BHAMMER@bizjournals.com Phone: 703/258-0831

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