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ThinkView: Thinkin’ and Linkin’

Bhu Srivivasan is not your typical 23-year-old Seattle CEO on the verge of launching a blockbuster $1 billion industry. As the former director of business development at InfoSpace, he cut his teeth by clinching deals and forging strategic alliances like a Hollywood superagent. And although Bhu is super-ambitious and likes to drive fast, sleek cars, he is not the type to lay down any cyber-hype. He seems to be well-grounded in classical business economics, a true believer that profit and earnings are the only Net metrics worth talking about. Eight months ago, Bhu created ThinkView, a company that intends to dominate a category called “Media Syndication.” What’s that? I’ll let Bhu field that one, for starters.–LS

Bhu, you talk about being in the “Media Syndication” business. Can you define that for our readers?
Srinivasan: It’s really an emerging market. It’s quite current as far as how it’s really evolving. For instance, the May/June [2000] Harvard Business Review had as their number one article, “Syndication: An Emerging Business Model for the Internet.” We work with the highest-quality content providers in the world. Leading newspapers like The New York Times, magazines like Rolling Stone, broadcasters like the BBC, cable networks like CNN.

So you’re focusing more on traditional media instead of the pure online publishers?
Srinivasan: Yes, and here’s why: In 1994, online publishing startups thought that they were going to be the online equivalent of TIME magazine. They figured: I’ve got the same cost of entry into this marketplace as TIME does, so I can easily produce content on the Web. Well, in reality, here we are in the year 2000, and right now there are maybe four exclusively online media brands that are actually viable entities, if you can even call them viable. These are: Salon.com, Slate, CBS Marketwatch and TheStreet.com. They’re the only content brands that produce full-text articles on a constant basis and that don’t have traditional brands associated with them.

Seattle24x7.com: Not a very inspiring ratio.
Srinivasan: What happens is that consumers want to see a traditional brand, a print publication or a cable outlet, something that allows them to validate you as being credible enough to produce things on the Web. In the case of the four I mentioned, Marketwatch and TheStreet.com have emerged simply because day trading has been taking off as a full-time phenomenon. And the other two — Slate is backed by Microsoft, and Salon stock is trading at $2.

Seattle24x7.com: So what are you doing for the traditional publishers who have an online presence?
Srinivasan: We run their online content through our linguistics technology, and we end up with very powerful “content applications” that can be distributed to vertical portals like Wine.com or Style365 or online services like Slingshot, all of whom we have deals with.

Seattle24x7.com: Time to beef up our glossary again; give me an example of a content application that you’re providing to these niche portals.
Srinivasan: Well, we’re working with one application called “Nano,” a downloadable 200k program. What the application allows me to do is to go to a website and highlight a couple of words with a right click of my mouse, and I can get media links to everything that is related to that word contextually . If I right click on Hillary Clinton on any old Web page, even if it’s not a hyperlink, it’ll still give me all the information related to Hillary Clinton.

We feed Nano all the editorial, whether it’s from the online archives of Rolling Stone or Scientific American or Roll Call or Mother Jones. The articles related to Hillary Clinton will come from the entire media mix, not just news or politics. I can then click on the headlines I’m interested in, and I will be linked to the publisher’s website for the full text.

Seattle24x7.com: How is that different than a search engine into which I type Hillary Clinton?
Srinivasan: Essentially, there are about 1 billion documents on the Web. Of those, maybe 100,000 are high-quality content produced by professional journalists at places like The Economist, The New York Times, the BBC. Now 100,000 out of 1 billion is not very much. If I were to say to a consumer: “Look, you can pick from one or the other–the 100,000 documents or the 999,999,000 documents–people will pick the 100,000 because that’s the content they really care about. It’s the quality and the credibility.

Seattle24x7.com: Won’t your clients–the specialty or “vertical” portals–resent having their readers sucked away to the websites of major publishers, where they’ll have to go to read the full text?
Srinivasan: On the contrary, through our service the vertical portals become more and more valuable for their constituents. Let me give you an example. Take your five favorite magazines. To visit each of them every day takes a minimum of 10 clicks–the first to get to each home page and the second to locate an article that interests you. And usually many more clicks are involved. But with ThinkView’s contextual content, the user finds exactly what he/she’s looking for direct and non-stop.

Seattle24x7.com: Who pays you?

: We’re intermediaries, charging anywhere from $5,000 to $250,000 per year, depending on the degree of customization. The media pays ThinkView for directing traffic back to their Websites. The portals pay ThinkView, too; they’re benefiting from the world’s best editorial content, while we handle all of the licensing details, distribution, contextual logic and updating.Within one quick deal with ThinkView, you can have all those different media brands exposed within your site and all within the perfect context of a specific user event.

Site visitors gain very broad, peripheral vision, if you will. Someone at Baseball.com, say, may end up reading an article in Scientific American about the physics of a curve ball. That’s one publication he’d probably never think to look in.

What different types of revenue streams do you foresee? And how will you operate with web-enabled devices that aren’t PCs, like interactive TV and cell phones?
Srinivasan: Realize what we are doing. We are converging content into context. There’s so much value there. Personally, I believe it’s a billion-dollar market. I believe there are some 1,000 vertical portals, desktop applications, interactive television applications, and there are probably an equal number of good content providers: 1,000 x 1,000 equals a million potential relationships. You can have an article in The Wall Street Journal that goes to a college audience; you can have an article in Scientific American that goes to a baseball audience. Every relationship is possible.

We also have a tremendous ad-targeting capability. For example, if a student who’s at CollegeClub.com clicks to go to an article in The Wall Street Journal, the Journal shouldn’t be showing him/her a Lexus ad; they should be showing that person a Volkswagen Jetta ad. Without knowing anything about the student, and with only one additional variable, they’re able to get a better advertisement. We believe that AvenueA, DoubleClick and the other media companies are all going to start using this method of media placement.

Seattle24x7.com: You spoke about TIME magazine. I can’t help but think that this kind of idea was what they originally had in mind with their Pathfinder online network. But it didn’t crystallize for them; they couldn’t figure it out, and so they fell back on their individual brands.
Srinivasan: There are a number of failures. I think the problem is if you try to keep it too proprietary, instead of ubiquitous. You remember New Century Network. They were basically a consortium of newspapers that failed. Consortiums are the easiest way to avoid work.

Seattle24x7.com: Let’s not forget Pointcast, the streaming news network/screensaver that took over your desktop when your screen was idle. Many consider it the original “push” application.
Srinivasan: The problem with Pointcast was that it was a very singular application. A great product, but it wasn’t the right product for everybody because lots of people didn’t want to get their modems hogged. Rupert Murdoch offered $350 million for Pointcast at one point. Then, what do you know? They sold for $7 million to Idealab. Half the people in this town can buy them.

How will ThinkView continue to remain vital?
Srinivasan: We don’t try to guess what consumers want. That’s a very difficult business. We try to get other companies to guess what consumers want. Whether you’re selling television or radios, everybody needs electricity.

You’ll then be assured of a permanent place in the
Seattle24x7 Netco Directory.
Srinivasan: Yea, I look at that list, and I think 90% of those companies weren’t around five years ago. That’s unbelievable!

Larry Sivitz is Managing Editor at Seattle24x7.com

Thinkin’ and Linkin’ ThinkView
2334 Elliot Avenue
The Pinnacle Building, Third Floor
Seattle, Washington 98121
Launch: October 1999
Executives: Bhu Srinivasan: CEO & President; Daniel Feussner: CIO & VP of Technology; Lu-Ann Branch: Director, Program Management
Funding: Approximately $2 million from the XMLFund and private investors.
Employees: 23
Customers: Wine.com, Style365.com, BluPlate.com, TalentedKids.com, Fly2Net.com, Slingshot Communications.
Strategic partners: Works with over 250 major media companies; 43 “broad-scope” agreements so far with publications, such as Rolling Stone, Cigar Aficionado, Upside, Red Herring, Popular Science, Inc Magazine, Roll Call, Mother Jones.