Deep in the heart of the Henry St. John building, former journalist Laurie Bennett is sitting in front of her computer and dreaming. In her daydream, she's driving along a country road which winds next the Susquehanna River, enjoying the nice weather and exploring a new place. She's hungry, and she'd like to stop and eat, but she's not a big fan of McDonalds. She wants to stop at a diner, the place all the locals go. She's looking for the best pie in the Chemung Valley.
Bennett's vision of instant access to precise and interesting local information is closer to reality than we might guess, due to the efforts of her new company, ePodunk. "An awful lot of people say place will become less and less important in the future," she says. "We think that the opposite is true. Place becomes more important in a wireless world." ePodunk is part of the next wave of electronic-based information access businesses, a step beyond the web. And she's building it right here in Ithaca, with the help of some talented people.
Bennett, who is originally from Dansville, New York, is a tall, blonde bundle of energy, with a quick laugh and a keen mind. She spent the last 23 years working as a journalist in Rochester, Washington, DC, and Detroit. Most recently, she was the director of new media and library services at the Detroit Free Press, where she oversaw the launch of five daily web sites. But after two decades of city living, this small-town girl got tired of the commute and hassle.
"I was thinking of re-locating," she explained one recent morning when I visited the offices of ePodunk. "I started thinking that in a wireless world, I could live anywhere I wanted. I'm really not a city kind of person, and Trumansburg popped into my head. Ithaca is not only pretty and affordable, but seemed like a prime spot to start a new media company."
Ithaca's attractions also included the fact that American Demographics had recently moved, and Bennett realized that some of their talent might still be hanging around town. She made some calls and soon got in touch with a friend of a friend, Brad Edmondson, former editor of the Ithaca Times and American Demographics. Edmondson put her in touch with Michelle DeChant, the former publisher of Marketing Tools magazine and advertising director of American Demographics magazine.
Edmondson and DeChant both could have moved to major metropolitan areas when their company was re-located, but they had decided to stay in Ithaca. "It was not a hard decision!" laughs Edmondson. He grew up in the small town of Nokomis, Florida, where there was only one paved road, and Ithaca is city enough for him. DeChant agrees, explaining that the comforts of small-town life far out-weigh the draw of jobs in far-off places. She's a fifth-generation Ithaca native herself.
Bennett, Edmondson, and DeChant, along with John Decker, a multimedia designer based in California, have together created ePodunk. ePodunk's name really tells the whole story. They're using the latest e-technology to talk about the smallest places, the "Podunks" of America, including ours right outside Ithaca. ePodunk is an information business. They gather hundreds of thousands of pieces of information about places from public sources, like the census and other government agencies, local histories, and commercial organizations.
"The material that we're building the profiles out of has always been available to the public, though it's not public knowledge," explains Edmondson. After crunching it together into a geo-coded database, they then are able to sell this neat package of manageable data to wireless companies who can use it to enhance the products they offer their customers.
"Our primary product are Community Profiles," explains DeChant. She's a serious, dark-haired lady, thoughtful and well-grounded. "Those are concise descriptions of more than 28,000 US communities, including culture, quirky pieces of history, and resources like museums and parks."
These profiles are currently on the web, and you can look at them at www.epodunk.com. I looked up my hometown, Syracuse, and I found out that Tom Cruise was born there, the movie Slapshot was filmed there, and that Syracuse ranks fourth in the nation in consumption of Cool Whip. That explains a lot. You'll have a great time checking out the place you were born, and where you went to school. And they've got an enormous collection of e-postcards, adorned with pre-1923 American photos of places, which you can send for free.
But the ePodunkers see a far greater potential for the use of their place database, and are targeting wireless companies as their main customers right now, while keeping their eye on the technology just rising on the horizon. Soon, they predict, we'll all be using cell phones, pagers, Personal Data Assistants like PalmPilots, and in-car dashboard navigation systems to send messages, and to access information we need in our mobile, connected lives.
But isn't it a little scary to be launching an e-business right now, at a time when the news is full of dot.com failures?
"Yes," agrees Edmondson, "but launching ePodunk is scary in an old-fashioned way. It's the same kind of scary that a guy who opens a restaurant feels. Any entrepreneur goes out on a limb."
With their solid business background, they're planning to avoid some of the big bloopers made by inexperienced e-tailers, like overblown marketing budgets and out-of-control expansion and spending. "There was this hubris," reflects Bennett wryly. "People just got carried away with their own brilliance. I think we'll remain humble. We've ridden out this huge ascent and descent in short period of time, and ended up building a business the old-fashioned way - using sweat equity and our own money, and sticking to an idea we liked."
And they're not putting all their eggs in the internet basket - they're diversifying their product to work for the wireless world, and keeping an eye on the next wave of technology yet to come. Flexibility is the key for ePodunk, one of a new breed of electronic-based businesses that are building in a different manner.
"There are sectors of technology that are just smoking ruins right now," explains Edmondson. "Purely web-based businesses are in a lot of trouble right now. But there are other sectors that are still fairly robust. The development of wireless applications still has a lot of life."
Edmondson continues, remembering the business model he learned from American Demographics founder Peter Francese. Francese was a repeat entrepreneur. He started the National Planning Data Corporation (now Claritas) in 1969, and American Demographics in 1979. Those were strategic times, when Francese was poised to jump and take advantage not only of new census data, but of new technology (magnetic tape) which made the information easier for business people to use for marketing.
"In 2001," says Edmondson, "the new census data will be on-line, at a granular level."
"That's a lot of information," says Bennett, "and that means context and instant delivery are more important." ePodunk is poised to take advantage of this new wave of data, bypassing the marketing and getting it directly into the hands of the consumer.
"The companies we're talking to are tuned into this bigger America picture," adds DeChant. "And they realize that additional quality information will validate their services, and make what they're offering more attractive. The uniqueness of what we're offering is recognized as having significant value to the packages they're trying to put together for carriers, to offer to consumers."
"Even if the internet world were still going crazy," says Bennett, "launching would still be scary. We're all working without salary and trying to build new customer relationships and launch a product that there's no model for. But that makes it really fun as well."
All four company founders were all born in little places, and they're living lives that embody the small town values that ePodunk proves still exist in America. ePodunk uses the technology of the future to express old-fashioned strengths.
"Our company is putting a spotlight on those aspects of place that are generally ignored by the mass media," explains Edmondson. "The media focuses on the coasts and certain neighborhoods and suburbs of large metropolitan areas. But then there's the rest of America."
And that's where ePodunk exists.