The most popular pet-related Web site during the week of Dec. 14 was not Petco or PetsMart, according to the traffic trackers at 100hot.com. It was Kingsnake.com, a portal to all things reptilian and amphibian.
The top ranking was no fluke. Kingsnake.com consistently is among 100hots top ten. More than 1.6 million unique visitors were logged in November.
Who are these guys, and how do they beat the pants off of some of the pet-store giants?
Actually, "they" was one guy from 1995 until September 1999, when founder Jeff Barringer added a production manager. ("Although we still share one salary," he jokes.)
Barringers journey began in 1994 when he worked for network-interface maker Thomas-Conrad and attended a workshop on HTML 1.0. "Tech things normally put me to sleep," he admits.
"But then the lecturer said, The next revision will allow pictures. That got my attention. Now we werent just talking computers, we were into media. What could I do with it?"
Compaq bought Thomas-Conrad in 1995. Ironically, Barringers new bosses dissed the Webs potential as a mass medium.
"They said it was a computer thing for computer people," he recalls. "I said, Fine, Im going to play with it at home."
Barringer started with a personal site devoted to the grey-banded king snake. Soon users begged to post classified ads, which he did for free. Then they asked for message forums, so he wrote some CGI scripts to handle that and automate the posting of classifieds, which were booming.
Then came the epiphany. "In one week, I got 700 ads, and noticed that many of them had nothing to do with grey-bands." Users asked for more forums devoted to specific "herps," short for herpetology, the study of reptiles and amphibians.
"I started with seven forums total, and now Im up to 150," says Barringer. The site has more than a million HTML objects in seven languages.
"Keep it simple" has been Barringers watchword. "The site is mostly HTML, CGI and SQL," he says. "Just standard, bulletproof technologies."
Barringer and his sidekick develop Web sites for herp breeders and supply dealers. They host more than 250 sites at PrismNets Austin, Texas-based data center. They have 400 banner ad contracts, and 1,000 classified ad customers that post nearly 4,000 ads a month.
"We built the community first," Barringer emphasizes, with major input from the sites users. That "user equity" is Kingsnake.coms key advantage over corporate Web sites.
"All five [major competitors] ... had a difficult time attracting a repeat audience due to lack of support from within the pet community itself," Barringer says.
Kingsnakes competitors tripped online. Amazon.com gave up on Pets.com and sold the domain name to PetsMart. Yahoo pulled the plug on Petstore.com. Petopia.com sold out to Petco.
Next, Barringer hopes to duplicate his success formula in eight other pet categories, and is trying to raise $1 million to expand his staff.
Keep it simple, small and affordable. Find the disenfranchised fanatics and unite them in an online community, then voilà! You have a market, and the sellers will come.