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The Cultural Connection

A former investment banker leads the pack in online social networking for niche communities.

Who: Benjamin Sun, 34; Calvin Wong, 35; Peter Chen, 35; Michael Montero, 33; Grace Sun, 34
What: Community Connect, Inc., publisher of niche social networking sites
Where: New York

As the world of social networking continues to evolve, it's easy for users to feel lost among the masses of others looking for love, friendship and fun online. MySpace boasts a tremendous international membership, while Facebook has moved away from its university exclusivity and now allows anyone to join. Although these sites owe their widespread appeal to this mass-market availability, Benjamin Sun recognized early on that people also are looking for online communities where they can find others that identify with their backgrounds or lifestyles.

Sun is the president and CEO of Community Connect, Inc., a company that helped pave the way for today's popular online communities. Founded by Sun, Calvin Wong, Peter Chen, Michael Montero and Sun's wife, Grace, Community Connect is the largest publisher of niche social networking sites, with 20 million members and projected sales of more than $20 million this year. In the 10 years following its launch, the company has established five sites targeting a variety of communities, including AsianAvenue.com, BlackPlanet.com, MiGente.com, GLEE.com and FaithBase.com.

"We try to take real world communities, bring them online and allow people to do the things they do in the real world more efficiently online," Sun says.

Before breaking out into the world of web communities, Sun had a career in investment banking with Merrill Lynch. While working with merger and acquisition transactions in the technology business, Sun came across the idea of online communities. At a time when Friendster and other networking sites were still distant visions, Sun realized the potential for user interactivity online.

"At that point I started realizing that the web was not just about replacing one-way media like TV, newspaper and the radio," Sun says. "It was almost like replacing the telephone and giving the audience a voice. I was just surprised that no one was taking such a powerful application and applying it."

By 1996, Sun and his co-founders had started Community Connect out of Sun's Manhattan apartment, living like college students and running the business with private funds of less than $500,000 from family and friends. Sun says his parents were particularly skeptical about him leaving a well-paying career in investment banking, yet were ultimately supportive.

Community Connect launched its first entity, AsianAvenue.com, in July 1997, the first social networking site to target Asian Americans. The site became the online home to more than 57,000 members as of October 2007. Sun says the future founders of MySpace even had profiles on the site before MySpace was developed.

Following the launch of AsianAvenue.com, the company received funding from venture capitalists and angel investors, including Robert Goldhammer, president of Concord International Partners.

BlackPlanet.com was the next to be launched in September 1999, facing formidable competition from established brands with major sponsors like BET.com and BlackVoices.com. Yet what ultimately enabled BlackPlanet.com to succeed and even surpass its rivals was its unique approach to online audiences. Within 100 days of its launch, BlackPlanet.com was attracting more traffic than all of its competitors combined.

"We knew that our focus on online community, and knowing that the other guys didn't know it that well and were more focused on publishing magazine content, was going to be our differentiator," Sun says.

The company forged ahead with new networking sites over the following years, launching MiGente.com in 2000 for the Hispanic community, which now boasts 2.9 million members, or more than 6 percent of the country's total Hispanic population. GLEE.com--gay, lesbian and everyone else--was established early this year and has already participated in events such as AIDS Walk NYC and the San Diego Pride celebration. The company also launched FaithBase.com this past summer, targeting the Christian community.

After overcoming initial skepticism and powering through the dot-com collapse in 2001, Community Connect is still looking to reach audiences that have yet to find a social home base online. Sun says hearing users' stories about finding their best friends, jobs and even spouses on Community Connect has been the most fulfilling part of his entrepreneurial efforts. "You have all these communities, and the most rewarding thing is taking these underserved communities, empowering them and improving their lives."

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