About a dozen of us were in the Inc. conference room in Boston that day. It was maybe 1997 or 1998. Half of us ran the Inc. website, which was called Inc. Online at that point. The others were from America Online.
For a couple years, Inc. had been supplying content to AOL, which for millions of people was homebase on the Internet. In addition to building out Inc.com, we gave AOL stories from Inc. and hosted one-hour live online chats with entrepreneurs such as Jeff Bezos of a we-can'’t-see-how-you're-going-to-make-money-but-OK company called Amazon.com. AOL paid Inc. to be there to provide the stuff that helped make up its small business area.
At that meeting, AOL laid out its new idea. It was getting a lot of eyeballs (indeed, it would blow up so big that it would acquire Time Warner a few years later). The proposition was that Inc. would now pay AOL for the privilege of having Inc. articles and chats on the AOL site. AOL was driving traffic to us, the earnest representatives said, and we would need to shell out to maintain the relationship.
As much as any moment in those early years, that was, psychologically, a turning point.
As much as any moment in those early years, that was, psychologically, a turning point. As I remember it, we decided that we could do fine driving our own traffic, thank you, and politely said no to AOL. Our job now was to grow Inc. Online into an even bigger thing all on its own.
The four year period, from 1996, when we started in a warren of offices at the Inc. mothership on Commercial Wharf, to 1999, when the website moved to new offices across the Boston harbor and began an aggressive, well-financed quest to dominate the Web's small business space, was Inc.com 1.0. We always had fewer than 10 people on staff full-time for most of it, handling all the technology, edit, and business, and we experiemented a lot, trying to identify what readers might want. We offered more than just the magazine's full text and subscription information: we wrote original breaking-news-type stories, bundled material into topical mini-sites, and organized searchable company databases for the Inc. 500 and Europe's 500 and Inner City 100. We created a free build-your-own-webpage interface for small businesses—which, despite the fact that those pages would look extraordinarily rinkydink today, attracted tons of managers who were glad to try their hands at claiming and defining their own small corners of the Internet.
We were profitable within a year or two (thank you banner ads and mini-site sponsorship), and we won a lot of awards in those early years. Inc.'s publisher sent us a case of Veuve Clicquot when Inc. Online garnered the first ever Folio award for magazine website in 1997, and, in the true spirit of that sparkly Internet heyday, Veuve became our drink of choice.
Years later, we're proud at what we accomplished. Years later, some of us are lucky enough to be able to work together. And years later, some of us still croon to each other, Whitney Houston-style, "oh I'm saving allll my Veuuuveee for yoooouuuu…"
Leslie Brokaw was a founding member of Inc. Online and editor-in-chief of the site from 1997 to 1999.