MountainZone: An Epic Adventure

In March 1996 we launched an online community that exemplified the power and potential of the internet. It focused on all things mountain: skiing, snowboarding, climbing, mountain biking, hiking and outdoor photography. We ended up with over 140,000 pages of content, from stories, interviews and videos to photos, forums, gear reviews, storefronts and auctions. It was a mammoth undertaking and it all started on this day 20 years ago.

I walked into our Mountain Zone headquarters in Seattle, Washington to see over 31 containers, boxes and crates ready to fly to Stratton, Vermont for the 1996 US Snowboarding Championships. We were sending our “A Team” to webcast the event all over the world. This was going to be epic! It had just been announced that Snowboarding was being added to the 1998 Winter Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Interest in the sport was escalating and snowboard manufacturer Burton was riding the wave. New snowboard manufacturers and venues were emerging every week. It was fun and explosive times!

We were using the US Snowboarding Championships as the event to launch MountainZone in the media. It forced us to speed up our launch timelines, and our crew worked night and day to get the site ready. But we already had good momentum before we launched. We had webcast via satellite a climb of Mount Kilimanjaro and we had been aggregating talent and resources. But most important, we had an amazing vision of what an online community could be and a unique convergence of skills and backgrounds to create it.

My two co-founders of MountainZone.com were internet pioneers and experts at a time when most people didn’t have emails yet. When we started there were less than 200 corporations in the world that had websites. I met Greg Prosl when he was involved in one of the first live music webcasts, Cyberian Rhapsody with Slash and the Seattle Symphony. The historic event occurred in the Paramount Theater in September 1995. It was stranger than fiction! Greg’s vision for online community included streaming media for live event webcasts, connecting spectators from all over the globe. We see things like Periscope today that are cool platforms with their cell phone “correspondents” webcasting from all over the globe… but I think, Hey, we were doing that 20 years ago. We started webcasting in 1995, a decade before Youtube launched.

Greg and I met with our other co-founder Todd Tibbetts in Seattle’s historic Pioneer Square. Todd was located near Real Networks headquarters, our future partner for worldwide webcasts. Those were exciting days in Seattle. Todd’s company had just won awards for creating a virtual online community called Gramercy Press. It was a fictitious publishing company based in New York, sponsored by McMillan Books. Internet users were totally convinced that the fictitious workers involved were real people and all sorts of weird emails came pouring in. Maybe some virtual dating resulted from it. Who knows! Todd’s mentor was the visionary Howard Rheingold in his days working at The WELL and the Whole Earth Catalog in the Bay Area.

Todd, Greg and I worked on a blueprint for an ideal online community that we called a “Zone.” We recognized that the internet provided an opportunity to bring a remote community together for the first time in history. My background was in creating and building real communities. Software user groups and developer associations. I had co-founded the first Windows Developer Alliance in 1988 with early Windows software companies and corporate pioneers, and acted as the first Executive Director. I knew how tough it was to build and manage a real community. The internet provided a platform to do this like never before. A 24/7 way to connect affinity groups.

In November 1995 we started The Zone Network with the objective of taking our complex community model and to build out several “Zones.” Our first event was webcasting Handel’s Messiah from Washington DC in December 1995. So the ConcertZone was on the list. As was the MountainZone. We had successfully webcast from Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa in early February 1996. We had a couple of other affinity zones on the short list as well.

The tipping point came into our office in early February. His name was Michael Harding. Michael was looking to build a mountain community filled with product reviews and online resources and maps and books. And snow reports. His vision was totally in synch with ours, so we brought him on board and put MountainZone on the top of our list. And a month later, we launched!

Our model was a convergence of Content, Community & Commerce. The Content draws them in. The Community gets them engaged. And the Commerce is where the monetization occurs. Of course we brought in millions of dollars of advertising and sponsors as well. But the vision was to read an article on skiing, click on the photo of Picabo Street, check out the cool jacket she was wearing, read the reviews and then buy it. And later, when we became the first online North Face dealer, we were doing just that. We had over 40,000 products in our stores at one point. It helped when a visionary book titled NET GAIN came out and validated our model!

We created an award-winning website and a passionate following of over a million viewers. But we fell short of that original blueprint. We had to build our own auction engines and media platforms and ecommerce platforms. We had to optimize our videos and photos, knowing that most people were getting their internet “through a straw” in those days.

It would be a different ballgame to build that community today. In theory there should amazing online communities out there, but the truth is there were better online communities in the late 1990s. Sure there is Facebook and lots of great social media. And those are great bulletin boards, news feeds, forums, store and auction platforms, publishing, media platforms, and feedback mechanisms. But that does not replace all of the facets required for a vibrant, in-depth online community. I manage over 20 Facebook Groups and Pages… and they suffice for communicating to a fan base or a membership. But that ain’t the ideal community to me. Far from it. I hope today’s innovators can channel those companies of the late ’90s when passion and vision were king!

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