iAutoNews - March 15,2000

A Startup That Already Has a Track Record:
PickupTruck.com evolves from a part-time hobby to an e-commerce initiative

Mike Levine started PickupTruck.com as a college project in 1995. In Internet time, 1995 was the dark ages -- characterized by gray pages, text in Courier font, and a decided lack of design flair -- and there was little competition for eyeballs. Web pages numbered in the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of millions of sites that are online today. Soon after its launch, PickupTruck.com was selected as a Cool Site of the Day, and Levine says he was flooded with traffic. Despite that encouragement, the site didn't claim much of his attention. He updated the site when he had free time, generally every few months, but he had two strong points in his favor. He had the foresight to buy the domain name, and PickupTruck.com maintained a steady flow of traffic.

After college, Levine went to work for IBM and was also involved in the L.A. Times Web launch. But in January 1999, he scored media credentials for the Detroit auto show, took a few days off from work, and provided almost-live updates of truck news that he posted at his site. The tremendous response was one of those epiphany events. Instead of viewing the site as a hobby, Levine began to think of it in terms of a full-time enterprise. He had a business plan by March, he and his partners decided to incorporate in June, and by September, they had their strategy and time frame nailed down.

Site features include a range of articles, aggregated news, forums, and chat. The articles and forums, Levine says are quite popular, and visitors provide good word of mouth, often promoting the original articles at other enthusiast forums. Chat is a new offering and is a "little slow" right now, Levine says. But plans are underway to sponsor special chat events that the company expects will draw more participants. The irregular update schedule of past years has been replaced by content refreshes every two to three days.

Earlier this month, PickupTruck.com launched its e-commerce section featuring outdoor gear, towing accessories, upgrades, and repair manuals for more than 20 pickup truck models. Although the current store represents a modest beginning, Levine, who is president of the company, says that once the company gets a feel for the types of products consumers want, they will begin building out categories and expanding the offerings. The company's nine full-time employees have been working on the e-commerce implementation since November, having had to manually enter the catalog information displayed in the Shop @ PickupTruck.com store. The bootstrap operation handles its own warehousing and fulfillment.

The store joins existing partners and revenue producers CarsDirect.com, InsWeb.com, E-Loan, and 1Source Auto Warranty.com. Levine says that he approached a number of online buying services about establishing a strategic partnership for new-vehicle sales, but that Cars.Direct.com "was the most enthusiastic." He said that that the CarsDirect.com deal is commission based, but admits that he doesn't "expect to make a ton of money." However, the new-vehicle buying service provided by CarsDirect.com fits the corporate strategy of making PickupTruck.com a "one-stop shop" for truck enthusiasts. Levine acknowledged that the company is currently evaluating potential partners for used-vehicle sales, but says that "nothing has been signed yet." A deal is also in the works to provide third-party comparison data at the site within the next three to four weeks, but Levine was unwilling to comment on the negotiations except to say that in an effort to keep the costs low, the company is exploring the option of doing a swap for the content.

As with all startups, money is an issue. PickupTruck.com recently completed its first round of financing, raising just over $1 million from private and family investors. The company is currently in a second round that it hopes to close by April. This time, the pitches are to venture capital firms. Much of the money will be used to upgrade the infrastructure and provide customization options at the site, but advertising is also in the budget. Its longevity has given PickupTruck.com prominent placement in the search engines, and Levine says the company is looking at the link exchanges, considering a NASCAR sponsorship, and evaluating the potential of banner ads.

In the meantime, Jay Weinberg, vice president of marketing, says that the site is now getting close to 200,000 unique visits per month, and time on site and repeat visits are high. The average visitor spends 13 to 14 minutes at the site and has visited 5 to 6 times in the past. The demographic is a niche marketer's dream. The age range is 33 to the early 40s, and the average income is $55,000 to $75,000.

Levine is enthusiastic about the site's potential. Explaining that the principals have worked for other dotcoms, have a thorough grounding in e-commerce, and know the pains of startup fever, he says, "The part that makes it passionate is that we like trucks and this is for ourselves."