On a warm midsummer day in 1996, a group of four editors huddled around a computer in a Boston office. Matthew Berk, a webmaster, "hit a button and launched the site, Inc.com," explains Bob LaPointe, Inc.'s current president, who was at the time a vice president of Inc. Previously, the only way one could find Inc. Online was on AOL, by searching keyword INC. Also present at the site's launch were Leslie Brokaw, who became editor-in-chief of Inc.com, and Mike Hofman, then a researcher for the magazine, who would—more than a decade later—become editor of Inc.com.
Bringing Inc. Online on AOL into its own URL, Inc.com, was "a very dramatic moment, because the core group at the time, we had all drank the Kool-Aid," LaPointe says. "It was Kool-Aid that caused vivid hallucinations that Inc.com would be the portal through which millions of business owners would enter the Internet to buy pens and pencils and coffee mugs and insurance and lunch—and do everything on the Internet."
Inc. Online (it would be several years before Inc. Online would become known as Inc.com) was from the start much more than an online archive of Inc. magazine: it sought to be a portal for entrepreneurs to access the Internet—and all the tools they needed therein—through partnerships with everything from property insurance to calendar software to staplers to ships of business cards in bottles, like this one pictured, which was handcrafted for LaPointe. "We probably had about 75 different kinds of business partnerships," LaPointe says. "It was definitely a portal play."
When this era for Inc.com began in 1996, Americans spent fewer than 30 minutes a month online, according to Slate. But even back then, there was growing interest in the Web—especially commercially. One of the most talked about sales of the year was when the domain name TV.com sold to CNET for $15,000. Also indicative of the state of the Internet: Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Yasser Arafat, and Phillipine President Fidel Ramos all met for about 10 minutes in a chat room in 1996.
By 1997, Inc. Online was thriving. The site won a prestigious Folio award for Online Editorial Excellence (pictured). Inc.'s editor-in-chief, George Gendron, wrote: "This followed by six weeks the news that Inc. Online had been honored with the Computer Press Association's award as best overall new publication, beating out strong entries from both print and online media. Proud as we are to receive such recognition from our peers, we are even more delighted that we are now reaching almost 500,000 people each month through Inc. Online."
For more than a year, Inc. maintained a separate presence as well on AOL—where it hosted prominent webchats, such as with Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (pictured)—until AOL asked Inc. to pay for its links. "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," writes then-editor-in-chief of Inc. Online, Leslie Brokaw.
Around this time, LaPointe began crafting a business plan that would set Inc. Online on a path toward even bigger things: namely, a major staff-up, traffic surge, and—ideally—an IPO. The business plan was highly ambitious, laying out a strategy for extensive content- and product-sale-partnering, e-commerce, and content syndication. An Inc. Online survey at the time showed that of Inc. Online users, 66 percent bought products or services online, and of those who did not, 77 percent planned to in the near future.
According to the business plan, in 1999, "Inc. Online ... currently delivering more than 1.2 million impressions a month, is profitable." That same year, the company moved across Boston Harbor to Charlestown, Massachusetts, to the old former sail loft for the USS Constitution (pictured). It began implementing the expansion plan, under "a separate (at arm's length) company, called Inc.com." Inc.com staffed up to about 120 people, and focused on a "rich e-commerce strategy, advertising and sponsorship revenues, and content syndication," according to the plan.
Inc.com was growing fast in early 2000. It won an award from Cahners In-Stat for best online small business center in the first half 2000—well, it tied with Office.com, but beat out competitors DigitalWork.com, Entrepreneur.com, and AllBusiness.com—and another from Forbes that spring. "Not long after that is when things start falling apart," LaPointe says.
In mid-2000, the dot-com bubble was wobbling, and magazine ad revenue was slowing—both online and in print. Inc. was owned by the Goldhirsh Group, having been founded in 1978 by Bernard A. Goldhirsh, the creator of Sail magazine, when he realized the need for media to address the unique needs of small business owners. The publication, which had become profitable in its first two years, was now strained. It sold—along with Fast Company magazine—in 2000 to Gruner & Jahr, a division of German media giant Bertelsmann, for a combined $500 million.
This was fall of 2000, and as magazine ad sales plummeted across the industry, the website also couldn't maintain revenue to keep staffed up. LaPointe recalls laying off 75 people and himself leaving the company. Inc.com was down to a barebones staff, and abandoned most of its business plan, aside from publishing magazine content.
Although the business was wounded, the editorial staff understood the need to re-imagine and improve the aesthetic of the site. Within just a few years, the site's logo and layout had gone through at least four iterations. Simple Bits founder and Web design expert Dan Cederholm, who has since designed websites for ESPN, MTV, and Google, was tasked with streamlining the Inc.com look. The result? The blueprint for the structure of Inc.com's contemporary layout: a black logo, light blue accents, and a featured homepage story serving as a visual anchor for the rest of the site's content.
In 2003, Inc. moved offices from Boston to New York City, bringing Inc.com with it. Internet download speeds continued to improve, and so did users' abilities to download content. For example, according to some estimates, 2.6 billion music files were downloaded illegally every month. As magazine revenues began to climb again, niche publications continued to be hit hard. By fall, ad sales rates at Kiplinger's Personal Finance, were down 13.3 over 2002; at Fast Company they were down 29.6 percent.
In June 2006, Joe Mansueto, an entrepreneur himself, bought Inc. and Fast Company for about $35 million. "This is purely a personal investment for me," Mansueto told MarketWatch back in 2006. "I see it as a contrarian investment in an out-of-favor industry—the publishing business—which is the middle of a slump. It's everything I like in an investment. It's two great brands, a very strong management team, loyal customers and readers."
After Inc.'s acquisition, the magazine rolled out a few new features. The 30 Under 30 franchise was launched, honoring the country's "Coolest Young Entrepreneurs." In 2006, Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle, topped the list. The magazine also expanded its coverage of the Inc. 500 to include the Inc. 5000. At its launch in 2007, the magazine noted that "In the Inc. 5000, you'll find the most comprehensive look ever at the most important part of the economy—the entrepreneurial part." Inc. also received a Webby nomination for best business blog—Dave Ibsen took home the award.
In 2007, Inc. moved downtown to the Financial District to take the 29th floor of the glass-façaded 7 World Trade Center, on the north side of Ground Zero. "Our media brands are all about inspiring entrepreneurial passion, innovation, and showcasing the vision and intellect of business leaders who think 'beyond the box' to create great opportunities," John Koten, chief executive officer of Mansueto Ventures LLC, said in a press release in July 2007. "Our selection of 7 World Trade Center, one of the city's newest state-of-the-art buildings that symbolizes the leadership, pride and future prosperity of the City."
In 2008, Inc. delved into social media and launched Twitter and Facebook campaigns. Starting from scratch, Inc.'s Twitter following has ballooned to more than 250,000 followers, and has amassed nearly 50,000 Facebook fans, all within three years. Now joining the social ranks for Inc.: Tumblr, Justin.tv, and Instagram.
The site was redesigned in 2009, implementing "Most Popular" and "Most E-Mailed" sections and reducing general clutter. The designers also removed the ".com" from the Inc. logo on the header of the homepage. In May 2009 LaPointe had rejoined the company as president of Inc. Months after the redesign, in 2010, Jane Berentson, editor of Inc. magazine, and Mike Hofman, editor of Inc.com, were nominated for a National Magazine Award for best "Interactive Tool," a nod to their work on the 2009 Business Valuation Calculator.
Fifteen years in, Inc.com continues to be a strong driver of growth for the Inc. brand. In 2010 Ask Inc. was launched as a way to facilitate conversations amongst business owners. In 2011, Inc.com launched Inc. Advisor, a hand-picked selection of the how-to guides, articles, tips, and video interviews, with entrepreneurs such as Tony Hsieh and Robert Johnson.