Early 2009 may seem like an inopportune time to start a business, but a threesome of friends in January launched a product development firm to help businesses improve their online presence and strategy.
So far, 3Ones has lined up some pretty impressive clients, including Oprah.com, SportsFanLive.com and People Media, which operates specialized online dating Web sites.
“I can say we’re profitable already in month two,” says its co-founder and president, Kelly Abbott. “We’re all pulling down salaries that we want and we’re able to put away a little at the end of the month. The business covers overhead and expenses where we need to comfortably live.”
Abbott, who didn’t disclose sales, said 3Ones has about five or six major clients and gets other business from firms via word-of-mouth among clients and former colleagues at consulting firms PBJ Digital and Red Door Interactive, where he worked. He’s also trying to meet venture capital firms that may pair 3Ones with early stage companies to develop products , such as social networks and mobile phone applications.
Online product development is still an evolving concept, and entails more than Web development, says Abbott.
“I think it’s a critical niche for successful Web companies,” says entrepreneur Mike Jones, who founded and sold PBJ Digital and Userplane. “People who are good at design can make pretty things, but you have to find specific people that make pretty things functional. Kelly has a good understanding of putting together form and function.”
Jones, who is now CEO of Tsavo Media, introduced 3Ones to People Media, where he sits on the board.
People Media operates religious-oriented and ethnicity dating sites, the largest being BlackPeopleMeet.com. The company competes against Match.com and eHarmony, and has more than 1 million customers, says Jones.
“They’re huge,” he said. “BlackPeopleMeet.com is the biggest African American dating site in the world.”
Abbott said that his team redesigned 32 dating Web sites for them.
“They had an existing product and needed it to be more social and reputable,” he said. “We gave them a design and strategy to increase total lifetime customer value, increase acquisition rates and ultimately the revenues.”
Oprah.com hired 3Ones to boost traffic on its Web site, which among other things streams “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and allows users to interact via video Skype with Winfrey’s guests.
“It’s a real good site, but there’s always room for improvement,” says Oprah.com President Robert Tercek.
For instance, Abbott suggested simplifying the various newsletters.
“Kelly gave us straightforward suggestions , about how to place the call to action,” he said. “You don’t want to overwhelm people with information. How to clarify it, streamline it and make it easy for people to see what you want to do.”
The move boosted user responses by 25 percent.
“That’s a really big deal,” he said. “With interactive software there’s an art and science to it. What I like about Kelly’s approach is he combines the art and the science.”
And for SportsFanLive.com, 3Ones sat down with its founder, former Yahoo! sports executive Dave Katz, and sketched out a strategy from the ground up.
“We worked with him based on the back of a napkin sketch and brought him to a level where he could bring in developers and community builders in-house,” Abbott said. “He raised money as well.”
He added, “He didn’t need us anymore. We gave him the initial blueprint for what he was going to build.”
3Ones was actually born out of Abbott’s side consulting gig to fund his social networking site called Dandelife.com. Similar to Facebook and MySpace, the site is marketed towards people who want to share their life story with friends and family.
The site counts 10,000 subscribers and is kind of a pet project for Abbott, who realized there was much more demand for product development skills than another networking site.
Abbott says despite the downturn, or perhaps because of it, he’s getting inquiries from businesses that want to become more efficient and improve their online business.
But it’s a crowded space for marketing and product developers, says Reid Carr, CEO of Red Door Interactive, which helps companies with offline brands improve their use of the Web.
“There are small Web shops around town that offer some things or software products that people integrate that they hope will do some stuff for them,” said Carr, who employed Abbott for three years. “It’s just not the complete package.”
Abbott said that entrepreneurs who have lost jobs are also starting their own ventures.
“Those guys aren’t home watching TV. They’re in garages trying to figure out what to do next,” he said. “They’ll put together a team and product idea, and invariably some will call us.”