He got hooked on it himself that day, and eventually created About.com. Today Media Metrix rates it as one of the Internet's 10 most-visited sites, frequented by about 60 million consumers worldwide who are hooked on its 700 niche topics.
When Primedia agreed to buy it last fall in an all-stock deal valued at $690 million, About.com was on target to turn a profit early this year. Meant to be Primedia's major Internet play, it will be a merger linking one of the biggest publishers of niche magazine titles with the Web's biggest developer of niche content. The deal should close in late February.
The key to About.com's success may lie in the bare simplicity of Mr. Kurnit's original idea: one site guiding consumers to hundreds of microsites, each drilling deep into specific topics ranging from garlic to golf.
While others may have had the same epiphany at the time when the Internet was beginning to explode, few were equipped to execute the plan like Mr. Kurnit, 46, who already knew a thing or two about the Internet.
He had just ended a roller-coaster couple of years, first succeeding in boosting Prodigy's Internet fortunes, then trying to knit MCI Communications Corp.'s Internet operations together with News Corp.'s Delphi. That effort, ultimately abandoned by MCI, taught him that "throwing money at the Internet" was not necessarily a winning strategy.
Thanks to his first job as a documentary filmmaker, and then several years spent at Time Warner in TV programming and advertising sales, then inventing a cable TV pay-per-view service for Viacom, Mr. Kurnit understood the lure of compelling content. He also knew how to run a business.
"I put what I knew together and devised the idea for a highly granular Internet service that would be totally independent and grow on its own," he says.
The site-originally called The Mining Co. when it began in June 1996-grew exponentially. Today it consists of more than 700 cultivated topics, consistently ranking around No. 7 in overall at-home and at-work online traffic.
Mr. Kurnit's "granular" plan included hiring independent contractors, as needed, who research and manage the microsites. Each time a page is viewed, its "guide" is paid three-tenths of a penny, creating incentives to constantly improve the content.
"Some of our guides are making $20,000 a month by creating some of the most compelling pages on the Internet," he says.
The hottest topics recently included Chinese culture and Southern cooking, and the competition to manage About.com's most popular sites is fierce.
About.com now has 800 guides in 20 countries, and 500 full-time employees. Some 350 are in its Times Square headquarters in New York, where the atmosphere is "highly charged with creativity, and the excitement of being around a lot of really smart people who are experts on all these amazing topics," Mr. Kurnit says.
His own reputation includes being something of a workaholic, running a tight ship and inspiring others to join his cause with his infectious enthusiasm.
"In 1996 people thought what we were trying to do was crazy, that no software was available that would let you link all these sites remotely with workers all over the place," he says.
But he persevered and within a year had developed a software platform allowing users to smoothly navigate from one microsite to another within About.com.
"Our biggest strength has been consistency and efficiency, and making sure we had a solid platform underneath us," Mr. Kurnit says.
Only weeks before the Primedia merger, Mr. Kurnit had championed the glories of About.com's independence. He now insists the company's spirit will remain unchanged despite its new corporate face. "We're gaining immediate, powerful brand recognition we needed through Primedia's print channels, and they're getting access to our Internet content and our search engine, which is unique in the publishing world," Mr. Kurnit says.
Primedia's stock price skidded after the deal went through, but analysts have supported the merger, noting advertising and content crossover opportunities for each company as they target enthusiasts of everything from cars to fashion.
The Primedia will allow About.com to gain more offline exposure, and it has already spawned in-house produced print campaigns in dozens of Primedia titles. In turn, many Primedia titles are driving readers to new title-specific sites within About.com, using its powerful search engine.
"Whenever you close a deal, the first thing you want to know is what's the deal. We found out right away there were no surprises, and [Primedia] is our mirror image in print. This is a situation where one and one makes three, and we're all on the same page," Kurnit says.