Cool Web site packing 'em in Entrepreneurship: Updated daily, the Web site Cool Tool of the Day has been attracting about 100,000 users a month, and partners Sean Carton and Chuck Donofrio are starting to count the dollars.

March 10, 1997|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Sure, Sean Carton is saying, I always saw myself as a multimedia micro-mogul. Absolutely. Anything you say. So would you if you left graduate school in the recession year of 1991 with a degree in something called critical theory. It's not as if anyone else was going to give him a job.

Well, there was the public relations job with the museum, followed by that nasty job at the printing place. But, sooner or later, that master's thesis on hyper-media, the then-nascent art of using hyper-text links to connect computers that now is the heart of the World Wide Web, was going to get Carton somewhere. And now it is beginning to.

The 28-year-old Frederick native, who came to Baltimore for college and stayed, is a partner in two Internet businesses, one a small interactive ad agency and the other a tiny Web site called Cool Tool of the Day. The ad agency, Carton Donofrio Interactive, brings in more money, but Cool Tool is gaining Carton a reputation.

The 11-month-old Web site has been harvesting awards, most recently a salute from The Net magazine as one of the 100 Coolest Web Sites of All Time. The irreverent daily review of what Carton sees as the neatest new things to use to surf the Net or create new media is even threatening to make some money, and people are noticing.

"There's a lot of sites trying to do the same thing, but few that are updated daily," said Pat Joseph, San Francisco-based senior editor of The Net. "It's useful to be able to go to one place where you know there will be a new thing every day -- and only one. It's digestible. At a certain level, people are beyond that. But for you and me, it's useful."

"It's something that has become pretty successful without our trying too hard," Carton said. "Basically, when I came out of grad school, there were no jobs for overqualified people with degrees in this field no one had ever heard of."

Cool Tool, which Carton and partner Chuck Donofrio hope will have $50,000 in revenue this year, grew indirectly out of Carton's battles with underemployment immediately after school. He kept his Internet ties, wrote for some Internet-oriented magazines and eventually started landing deals for Net-related books. He has written seven.

Carton has an unusual reaction to seeing his work in bookstores -- he says it makes him cringe. The problem is, it can take up to a year to finish and publish an ambitious book about Internet tools, but nothing about the Internet stays current that long. On the Web, of course, you can publish immediately if you want to and put in everything that fits on a server.

"Originally, Cool Tool was conceived as an adjunct to the book, because the book was going to be obsolete by the time it came out," Carton said. Early Cool Tools included many things that had been cut from one of Carton's books, but the site was still mostly a lark. "It was a fun thing I spent an hour a day putting together. And it's a good way of staying in touch with the industry," he said.

The site is a mix of serious tools, light tone and a goofy picture of Carton peering from a stylized TV. Every day, Carton gushes over something he likes or rags on something he doesn't, and people who want to see old material can search by keyword or category.

"It wasn't meant to be journalism," Carton said with a laugh. "It's for people who love new stuff and also want to put up with my blather."

Cool Tool wasn't supposed to be a business either. But by last year, Carton had landed at the Baltimore ad agency of Richardson Myers & Donofrio Inc., with the job of trying to turn Internet advertising into a business.

One of the biggest barriers to making the Net a new medium worth watching is its fragmentation -- with millions of Internet addresses, it's hard to get a big enough audience in one place to attract advertisers, and surfers accustomed to free content have been slow to adapt to pay-per-view models. Cool Tool offered a solution to the Net's core problem -- its audience of professional Web-site developers and software enthusiasts is small but tightly focused. By late last year, the medium had something to sell to advertisers -- the ability to reach a specific audience that buys specific things -- so Carton and Donofrio decided to get more serious.

Daily traffic soars

And there were signs that people were taking it seriously. There were a couple of trade press mentions, a spot on the MSNBC cable television network, respectful attention for Carton at conferences of Web developers and a boost in daily traffic from 500 hits to 10,000 on a good day.

"It's a good thing to watch to see what will be leading-edge," said Kelsey Sealander, vice president of BackWeb Technologies San Jose, Calif., whose Internet push-broadcasting software got a boost last year when Cool Tool gave a positive review before the major computer magazines caught on. "They do things early, and they have a big effect on technology."

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