When she was racing a solar-powered car 2,000 miles across Australia's Outback in 1987--before the Internet revolution--it was clear to observers that Megan J. Smith was motivated by more than a need for speed.
Ever since the self-described "science kid" can remember, collaborating with others on wild new innovations has been her primary passion. Now, she's in her element at PlanetOut, one of the Internet's leading sites for gays and lesbians.
Already boasting 300,000 registered users who regularly visit the site and more than 200 advertisers that include Procter & Gamble Co., Citibank and United Airlines, PlanetOut recently received a major cash infusion from investors and a troop of high-powered new talent.
A major marketing campaign also is being hatched to reel in many more of the estimated 10 million online gays and lesbians worldwide next year.
PlanetOut has come out with its desire to go public. Depending on the timing, PlanetOut could be the first major gay and lesbian site to be traded on the stock market next year.
"The potential for being the main destination for this audience is huge because so many gays and lesbians are unable to express their interests in public," Ms. Smith says.
"You cannot underestimate the power of the closet, when people can still get fired in 39 states for being gay, and they can't get insurance for same-sex partners or other services we are making available to them."
BIG PLANS FOR 2000
Equipped with streaming media, exclusive rights to cover major gay and lesbian events such as next spring's Millennium March and discounts for users on a variety of services and merchandise, PlanetOut is poised to hit the accelerator in 2000, targeting general Internet portals plus entertainment and health-related sites with banner advertising and other online promotions.
Recently Ms. Smith helped attract a contingent of high-powered investors and hand-picked executives, adding vision, planning and technical power to help the site grow.
Investors include America Online Investments, Eden Capital and Mayfield Fund.
Individual backers include RealNetworks founder and CEO Rob Glaser; E*Trade President Kathy Levinson and Internet visionary Nicholas Negroponte.
DREAM TEAM OF EXPERTS
The cash infusion helped Ms. Smith lure a dream team of Internet experts to PlanetOut, led by President-Chief Operating Officer Mark Crumpacker.
His accomplishments in his former job of CEO of Studio Archetype include building sites for the Olympics in Nagano, Japan, for American Express Co. and for IBM Corp.'s e-commerce unit.
PlanetOut steers clear of pornography and emphasizes topics of special interest to gays and lesbians such as travel, films, finance, health, fitness and music, which are making it a magnet for advertisers.
Working at PlanetOut is almost as adventurous as racing a solar-powered car, Ms. Smith says, as the number of employees has doubled in six months to about 50 and is expected to double again in another six months.
Ms. Smith says the company's hiring policies are open: "We don't discriminate against people who are straight."
You can check that with PlanetOut founder and Chairman Tom Rielly, whose business card declares he's the company's chief homosexual officer.
Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc.
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