Sunday, October 22, 2000

Entrepreneurs seek a more feminine Web

Services expand for women online

By Beatrice E. Garcia
Knight Ridder Newspapers

        MIAMI — Maria Bailey, a former marketing vice president at AutoNation, had been considering starting her own business for a while, but being downsized last fall pushed her into action. grew out of the challenges and issues she faced as an executive working mother.

        After working in Brazil for a year to launch the country's first free Internet Service Provider, Sonia Dula realized most of the Internet content was male-oriented. Yet in Brazil, as in many other Latin countries, computer ownership was split evenly between men and women.

        She thought more women would use those computers to go online if there were relevant content. So, — which takes its name from obsidian, a black semiprecious stone symbolizing the feminine qualities of love, wisdom and objectivity, was launched in May. Ms. Dula and co-founder Annette Franqui got the backing of high-profile venture capitalists, including Chase Capital Partners and Flatiron Partners.

        By the end of 2000, women could make up roughly half of all the adults online, up from about 46 percent in 1999.

        And a growing number of entrepreneurs are hoping to provide women with information on subjects they care about, a sense of community, and a few shopping opportunities.

        More than a dozen South Florida-based sites have popped up in recent months that aim to reach out to Latin professional women, women having babies, women as working mothers, and even women as the nutritional experts for their families.

        South Florida may have more than its share of women-oriented dot-coms because of the proximity to Latin America. The bulk of the sites based here are focused on Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking women, be they in Latin America, the United States or Europe.

        With women climbing the corporate ladder more rapidly these days or starting their own businesses, technology can be a way to deploy services and information for women, Ms. Dula says. For instance, aims to have its content available via computer or wireless devices. To customize its pan-regional reach, Obsidiana has hired the top editors from the leading women's publications in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico.

        “The Internet can be an excuse to get into their world,” Ms. Dula says.

        Judging from the impact that the Internet has had on her own life, this former investment banker sees women turning to the Internet for information and for ways to simplify their lives.

        Ms. Dula recalls that when she was having her first child three years ago, she would have gladly picked the option that allowed her to buy a fully furnished baby's room, including everything from crib, linens, lamps and rocking chair, from one of the sites that cater to expectant mothers.

        The local sites extend the online rush started last year by, Network and Its owner, Oxygen Media, boasts some powerful backers including Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Entertainment Group and Silicon Valley consultant Lawrence Wilkinson. Oxygen's founder is Geraldine Laybourne, former president of Disney-ABC cable networks and former Nickelodeon chief.

        Some of these sites are little more than electronic versions of traditional women's magazines. But a few offer more unique features such as “Be Fearless,” a new section at that offers women an opportunity to learn, question and debate political, social and legal issues important to them. and offer irreverent alternatives to the usual fare.

        In recent months, sites that drill down to more refined niches have popped up. goes after the woman traveler. aims to sell outdoor equipment geared for women. Even Billie Jean King, the famed ten nis champion, is putting together a site for female sports enthusiasts.

        The local entrepreneurs as well as big national sites are feeding a trend borne out by real numbers.

        Research by Media Metrix, a New York firm that measures online users and traffic for Internet sites, shows there were slightly more women than men surfing the Net in May. Women Internet users surpassed men for the first time in February.

        Older women are turning to the Internet in droves, up 99.3 percent in May, according to Media Metrix. However, despite such growth, total number of men over 55 is larger.

        Analysts are divided on whether or not gender-specific Web sites are the way to reach an online audience.

        Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst with Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., says research has shown that income, education, age and an open attitude toward technology are the main factors that drive Internet use, not gender or ethnicity.

        “A person won't be more or less likely to be online because he or she is Asian. But they would be more likely to be online if they had a higher income, were better educated, were younger and had an open attitude toward technology.”

        Content is king — or queen depending your perspective — because of the Internet's ability to target a specialized niche.

        “It's best to pick a very specialized niche topic and brand itself as the specialists in that space,” Ms. Walsh adds. “A site that focuses on outdoor activities is good. A site on outdoor activities for women, no.”

        David Joyce, an Internet analyst with Gomez & Co. in Miami, is more tolerant of gender-specific sites, but agrees that content is the key factor.

        “If a site has attractive, proprietary and custom content, the likelihood for "stickiness' — keeping those viewers — is greatly increased,” Mr. Joyce says. “This stickiness is what advertisers look for.”


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