Barry Cooper sits behind his desk, broad-shouldered and confident, his thick hands twirling and squeezing a very worn, faded yellow Nerf football. Growing up, he wanted to be a professional athlete, but he just wasn't good enough. Maybe not for the gridiron or the court, but in cyberspace, he's made the big leagues.
The 43-year-old former sports writer looks out of his office window in Chicago, where he is CEO of Blackvoices.com, a virtual community for African-Americans that includes an extensive recruitment service where Fortune 1,000 companies post job opportunities to half a million regular users. "At Blackvoices, they have a community that they call home," Mr. Cooper says. "They go online to look for and hook up with their friends and to find out what's the buzz around Black America. And while they're there, they hear or see about employment opportunities."
When Mr. Cooper started Blackvoices in December 1995 as a "button" on the home page of the Tribune Co.-owned Orlando Sentinel's site on America Online, "the focus was entirely on creating audience and eyeballs" through news, features and discussions. He had no staff and no marketing dollars but was committed to creating a community for African Americans.
The new audience boosted overall usage of the Sentinel's site from 60,000 log-on hours a month to 100,000. In April 1997 Blackvoices.com secured its own URL and moved to the Web, bringing in more traffic and advertising.
POISED FOR NATIONAL PLAY
With about $1 million in annual revenue from job postings, sponsorships and banner ads, the site, wholly owned by Tribune Co., is not yet making a profit but is positioned to grow as investors come on board. Tribune Co. invested $5 million last year to move the operation from Orlando to Chicago so it could make a "national play from a larger platform," Mr. Cooper says.
But the bucks don't stop there. Mr. Cooper is seeking close to $25 million from private investors, which he expects to have by yearend. "We want Blackvoices to spin off and ready itself for an IPO 18 to 24 months down the road," he says. Although Tribune Co. is purely a financial presence, its influence cannot be ignored when Mr. Cooper articulates his vision for the company: " We have a chance to create a large, multimedia company. We see a day when the Blackvoices brand will extend beyond the Internet into broadcast and print."
It sounds a lot like what rival BET Holdings is doing with BET.com, scheduled to launch next month.
Mr. Cooper welcomes the rival. "I think it's one of the best developments that we've had in 1999; Bob Johnson [chairman-CEO of BET Holdings] is a great marketer and promoter; his cable station has tremendous reach, and he is going to be a catalyst for getting more African-Americans on the Internet."