Lessons learned from biztravel.com

By | March 6th, 1997

Biztravel.com is one of interactive travel’s flagship sites, supported by a $12 million company in Manhattan and a collection of affluent investors. But only after the company that used to be called Middlegate Inc. purchased an online magazine and adopted its name.

Two years ago, biztravel.com was a two-man operation with editorial offices on a small island in the Florida Keys. And I was its editor.

My brief and troubled tenure with biztravel.com was a forbidden subject until now. But with biztravel.com under new ownership, it’s time to share some of the lessons I learned.

My experience can be divided neatly into a series of strategic slip-ups I made from March until November 1995. By writing about my errors, perhaps I can prevent others from falling into the same traps.

Mistake #1: Online magazines are like print, only with markup.

Right. Maybe the biztravel online publication I built started as a dowdy, counter-intuitive Web page pieced together in HTML 1.0. And perhaps it evolved into a hot, multi-layered, content-rich site that won acclaim and attracted advertiser interest. But it remained essentially a print magazine translated awkwardly into cyberspace.

Mistake #2: You can make easy money on the Web.

Biztravel’s former publisher, a man who understood practically nothing about the Internet, gave me carte blanche to develop the site and recruit contributors, which I did. Within four months, I’d signed up the best business travel writers on little more than a promise the publisher had given me that he’d pay them.

I also convinced the powers that were to drop the awkward “Business Traveler Online” name then being used in favor of the somewhat sexier biztravel.com. The name stuck.

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However, the whole operation hinged on the publisher’s ability to sell ads, which, try as hard as he might, he couldn’t. The few advertisers appearing in biztravel.com before it was sold paid far less than rack rate, according to my sources – a situation not uncommon around the industry. The boat was sinking.

Mistake #3: You can trust people in this business.

Sure. I quit in November 1995, after none of my writers had gotten paid. Eventually, I lost five figures in promised shares and salary myself, a pattern than apparently repeated itself with at least two other Internet developers before biztravel.com changed hands.

Bottom line: contracts are meaningless, hardly worth the paper they’re written on. You already knew that, but here’s a cyberspace twist: virtual offices breed dishonesty. The farther away a programmer is from a customer, or a Web developer from a site, the likelier their invoices will go unpaid. Mine did.

Mistake #4: Ignore the problem and it will go away.

This was my publisher’s strategy and it didn’t work. As his ship was about to go under, he hastily sold the name biztravel.com to a pre-Middlegate middleman who probably had no idea what he was inheriting. The now ex-publisher brushed aside the frequent invoices sent to him by writers and contractors. He certainly ignored my letters.

The whole experience left me and many members of the business travel press and developer community with a bad taste in our mouths. We might not be able to recover our missing compensation, but our memories are long and our pencils sharp. It’s only a matter of time before some of biztravel.com’s jilted chickens come home to roost.

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I’m not angry about what happened anymore, but profoundly grateful for the deeper understanding of the business that I gained by helping create biztravel.com. I desperately hope that no one reading this column makes the same tragic, foolish mistakes that I did. But I admit that’s a very idealistic thought.

Let me end with a quote from my letter of resignation to the biztravel.com editorial staff. Start-up publications, I observed, are by their very nature risky, but online start-ups are particularly risky.

“As you continue,” I warned them, “please remember this.”

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