The Coming New Face of Eons—All About Social Networking
Eons, the upbeat web portal for those on the “flip side of 50,” has been feeling the vagaries of age—young age, that is. Despite amassing $32 million in venture capital, the 15-month-old (depending on how you count) startup has experienced severe growing pains and in September was forced to lay off a third of its staff—and it’s been busy reshaping its identity ever since. The company is now spinning off its original bedrock Obits section as a new business—Tributes.com—and Eons itself will formally debut anew in January as it evolves from a more general collection of resources into what might be thought of as Facebook or MySpace tailored for the baby boomer crowd.
Or, as founder Jeff Taylor puts it, “The epicenter for Eons is 50, whereas the epicenter for both MySpace and Facebook is teens, 20s, 30s. And so as we evolve, there’s the possibility of a peer-to-peer network for people in their 50s, people at similar life stage and experience, people that understand ‘me,’ and a place I can call my own. That’s our goal and our role, I think.”
I got the skinny on all this last Wednesday from Taylor when I visited the company’s funky fourth-floor headquarters in Boston’s Charlestown Navy Yard. The HQ is a quasi-attic space with sloped roofs, exposed brick walls, and worn leather chairs mixed in with newer stuff. The whole place, somewhat like Taylor himself, emits a fun, quirky, hip-yet-down-to-earth vibe. Everyone works late on Wednesdays—they typically have dinner together—so folks can call it a week at 1 p.m. on Fridays. “I always wanted to do that,” Taylor told me.
It was a wide-ranging conversation that covered Taylor’s career, his experience founding pioneering online job site Monster.com (where his title ran, “founder, president, CEO, chairman, and chief monster”), the ideas behind Eons, the travails of the site, and his plans for the future. The recent cutbacks had been hard, and Taylor was pretty candid about losing some of his core advertisers as well, but as usual, he was upbeat. “I am extremely bullish on where our company is today,” he told me. “But I’ll be the first one to say we don’t have all the answers. We just have an extremely interesting challenge, which is how to galvanize the baby boomer online energy.”
Eons, which debuted on July 31, 2006, grew out of a couple key observations Taylor had as the oldest baby boomers (the post-WWII generation born between 1945 and 1965) moved past the half-century mark in age. One, he explains, was that “there was no media focused on the 50-plus space. No radio, no TV, no print.” What’s more, hardly any businesses, on the Internet or otherwise, really focused on serving this economically powerful group. “About the only thing with traction that [had] existed in the marketplace for over 50 years was AARP,” says Taylor.
Enter Eons—or kind of. First there was a thing called raising money, lots of money, which Taylor ultimately did primarily from two giants of venture capital, Sequoia Capital on the west coast, and General Catalyst in Cambridge, MA. (Other investors include Intel, Charles River, and Humana). The funds came in two stages, a $10 million first round in January 2006 (the company actually formed in September 2005, nearly a year before the website debuted), and a $22 million Series B financing that closed in March.
A key to remember in this whole story is that Eons is largely a reflection of Taylor’s personality—energetic, enthusiastic, and, yes, optimistic about the future. Taylor himself is still only 47, and he’s been chided for being too young to use his own site. But when it comes to believing that hitting 50 is no reason to slow down, he’s got it right. He tells a story of visiting venture capitalists seeking initial financing. “I saw the folder for my idea on one of the VC’s desk here in Boston, and it said, ‘Golden Years’ on it. That was the broad perception of what I was working on. And there was no way it was ‘Golden Years’ to me.”
Instead, Taylor chose to celebrate aging. “Let’s Live to Be 100 (or die trying)!” is one of his slogans. And, of course, there’s his trademark “Boom, boom, boom” phrase, which you might have seen him belting out on TV ads. Another way he sums up Eons’ ethos: “If you’re interested in retiring and drying up like a raisin, we’re not the place for you.”
Optimistic energy spewed out of the site from the start. There’s been some fine-tuning over the last 15 months or so, but from day one Eons served up a tableau of broad categories that appeared as circles atop the home page, each bearing names like “fun,” “love,” “money,” “games,” and “obits.”
Inside these offerings users could find a variety of activities and tools tailored for the flip side set, including Boomer Trivia and brain games designed to stimulate (and I guess counter aging in) different lobes of the brain. There’s a popular Longevity Calculator that both calculates your current life expectancy (based on lifestyle and history) and suggests ways for you to extend it. And, at least in the first stage of its evolution, the site was populated by lots and lots of short 200- or 400-word articles, what Taylor calls “light touch editorial,” on things like quitting smoking, swimming with dolphins, or walking your way to good fitness.
And in some ways, at least, it worked. The site now has some 600,000 registered users who have created personal profiles. Each month it attracts about 600,000 unique visitors (not all of them registered), who spend an average of 18 minutes on the site each session and generate an average of 18 page views per session. (As a website editor and CEO, I can tell you that those are very good numbers by most standards, but maybe not when you consider how much money Eons has likely spent on editorial content, design, audience acquisition, and so on. I’m guessing it’s more than $20 million, because Taylor says he has half his $32 million in venture funding left, and he’s also taken in at least a few million more in ad revenues from the likes of Hyatt, Humana, CVS, Liberty Mutual, Verizon Wireless, and Harrah’s.)
Taylor won’t comment on Eons’ financial specifics. But he is candid about not everything working as planned. “There was very little traffic going to a lot of these circles,” he says. And that was definitely a problem. By late this summer, just a few months after closing his Series B round, it was clear Eons had to make some major changes to curtail spending and refocus the business model. “We spent the month of August analyzing all of our one-year data,” Taylor says. “We said we need to sunset some of these products, and we need to resource others.” That led to the big changes announced in September, when Eons laid off a third of its staff. Actually, Taylor acknowledges, some near-simultaneous attrition cost the company a few more employees than that, including its former CTO, Reed Sturtevant. Right now, Taylor says, there are 37 employees, down from 62.
When the layoffs went down, our sources told us that the refocusing was largely driven by Eons’ venture backers. Taylor puts it somewhat differently, saying, “I had full support from my venture capital investors.” In any event, he sees the wrenching experience as the kind of reality check many startups go through, and not a calamity. Monster, he pointed out, also started with a wide array of products—including a site called Roar for college students to sound off—and dropped them to focus on the one that hit it big, its job listings database. With Eons, “I described the initial effort as dragging a trawler net across this marketplace, with kinds of all different-sized holes in the net, to see what we would catch,” he says. “From the first second we measured and measured everything that was happening in the system…I thought it was all going to work. But I knew that the customers were going to decide.”
So, what did he learn from his customers? For starters, they were, on average, about a decade younger than the 65 to 67 years old that Taylor had originally imagined. And whereas his visitors ran 60-40 male in the early days (he thinks because most of the coverage was in the business press read mainly by men), his best users are far and away female. Women make up 56 percent of registered users, but, says Taylor, “women use the site two times more than men do.”
Another surprise was that the “light touch editorial” wasn’t attracting readers. “What’s clear to me 15 months later,” says Taylor, “is that the traditional content, in terms of 200 and 400 word stories developed by an editorial staff and experts in the space in all different categories, does not have a lot of traction.”
One thing that did work was obits—but there was a big surprise there, too. Obituaries had been a key part of Taylor’s original vision, and inside Eons they were doing pretty well. But it turned out that the traffic was mainly coming from people who weren’t Eons members. Because he believes there’s still a huge opportunity to steal the obit market away from newspapers—in much the same way Monster and Craigslist helped take job ads to the Internet—Taylor is looking for strategic partners to help carve off that business into a new site to be called Tributes.com. “We’re going through the process of raising an additional amount of money specifically for that business right now,” he says.
But the biggest surprise, by far, is what seems to be the outstanding success of the social networking aspects of Eons. Taylor says that in early focus groups, boomers were disdainful of social networking. “They said ‘Absolutely no way would we ever meet up online,'” he notes. “And today it is alive and well and kicking at the center of Eons’ success. It is now 70 percent of our traffic and page views.”
The same topics that met with apathy when professional writers addressed them had an electrifying effect when members posted their own personal stories or concerns. An article about quitting smoking got something like 20-30 page views, Taylor says. But a woman writing on her group page that “I’m thinking of smoking a cigarette and I haven’t smoked in 51 hours” received hundreds of posts from people encouraging her to hold on.
User groups hold a big part of the key to what Eons is trying to achieve. Unlike websites like Facebook and MySpace, which are built largely around networks of existing friends, Eons has grown around strangers meeting other strangers in groups with names like “50+ Singles,” “Bookoholics,” “Growing Old is Mandatory; Growing Up is Optional,” and “Hippies for Life.” Taylor says there are now some 3,000 groups, the biggest of which have more than 7,000 members. In addition to meeting online, these groups are increasingly meeting offline for activities such as “skits,” which stands for “spending the kids’ inheritance tours.” Taylor loves it. “They’re meeting up and having pajama parties, and they’re just ripping it.”
Eons was already adapting to the success of its social networking side long before the layoffs. Offerings like groups and member pages started out inside the “fun” circle, and then later got their own space—the “people” button. Just a few weeks ago, around the time of the layoffs, the company launched a new circle called “LifePath” that is geared to bringing people together based on their core experiences and goals for the future, as set out in their personal pages.
Eons users will see more changes in the next few months, with a more formal debut of the made-over site coming around mid-January. Taylor won’t relate exactly what’s in store—he probably doesn’t know it all yet anyway—but he says the site will offer a lot more community features.
As he contemplates what lies ahead, Taylor professes acute awareness of the many challenges Eons faces. He admits that some of his advertisers have lost patience and departed. There’s also a crop of competitors to worry about, “over 10 now,” he says, while professing not to remember their names (A quick look around the web turned up Second50years and BoomerGirl, but Taylor wouldn’t confirm whether these were ones to which he was referring).
But through all the confusion, the Eons founder says he’s convinced the company is well-positioned for success. Eons has a core of dedicated users, and given the wild popularity of sites like Facebook and MySpace for the younger crowd, he foresees a great opportunity for social networking to take off in the older set Eons serves.
Towards the end of our conversation, Taylor couldn’t help but bring up Manny Ramirez and the Boston Red Sox (the World Series was starting that night). When the Sox were down 3-1 to Cleveland in the playoffs and facing elimination, Manny caused an uproar when he said: “It doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.” Manny was much-maligned for this comment, as many questioned his commitment to winning. But Taylor’s take is that Ramirez is a fierce competitor who knows that all you can do is fight the good fight, and it really isn’t the end of the world if you fail. The rest of Manny’s quote, by the way: “Why should we panic? We’ve got a great team.”
And that’s how Taylor feels. He thinks Eons is on the cusp of something special. “If we hit a single in this space, it will be very interesting,” he says. “And to stay with the baseball analogy, a home run in this space is way bigger than Monster.”
And look what happened to the Sox.
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