RealSelf, Backed by Second Avenue and Rich Barton, Blazes Trail with Cosmetic Review Site

Who says consumer websites are dead? Maybe you don’t need the ridiculous traffic of, say, Seattle-based Cheezburger Network (LOLcats) to survive on advertising revenues. Maybe user-generated content around a targeted niche, especially where there are purchasing decisions being made, can work well after all.

That’s the sense I got after talking with Tom Seery, the founder and president of Seattle-based RealSelf. Launched in 2006, provides information about cosmetic treatments in an online community format that includes user reviews, doctor listings, and expert advice from cosmetic surgeons, dentists, and dermatologists. The treatments in question—a multibillion dollar market worldwide—run the gamut from nose jobs and tummy tucks to orthodontic braces and breast implants.

RealSelf is particularly interesting because it sits at the intersection of a number of fast-growing (but also challenging) areas for startups—social and community review sites, health 2.0, and ad-supported media sites. The company has gained some traction, growing 150 percent year over year in Web traffic; it now gets more than 700,000 unique visitors per month, Seery says. In terms of local startups with a similar strategy for capturing niches of Internet content (but these are not competitors), I’d mention Avvo, TeachStreet, Raveable, Redfin, Urbanspoon, and Zillow.

Like most promising startups, the story of RealSelf began with some important personal and business observations. Seery was a longtime employee of Bellevue, WA-based Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE), and he saw the competing startup TripAdvisor plug away at hotel reviews and other user-generated ratings until 2004, when IAC (which then owned Expedia) had to buy it. “That was the ‘aha,'” Seery says. He thought, “Where else can we take this empowerment of consumers?”

Around the same time, Seery’s wife was researching a laser cosmetic treatment, and was having a hard time finding trustworthy reviews. So he thought, “Let’s create TripAdvisor for the cosmetic space.” The key adjustment he made was to introduce medical experts to the user community. The challenge there, as with most e-health sites like WebMD and Revolution Health, is that doctors are … Next Page »

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