Birmingham Restaurants celebrates 10th Anniversary!
By Jan Walsh
On March 1, 2007, I launched BirminghamRestaurants.com. I was an unintentional pioneer back in the early (www) wild, wild, web days. In 2007 most businesses did not have a website, including restaurants. Twitter was less than a year old. And Facebook had become a public site less than six months prior.
I am often asked how I became an entrepreneur and what made me start with my internet businesses. So, here’s the story... In 2006 I was a food and wine writer for print publications, locally, nationally, and one international mag, Wine Spectator. I also had a local wine events calendar in Birmingham magazine, at the time. Yet I found it difficult to get events from wine shops and restaurants in time to meet print deadlines. They did not always plan that far in advance. I proposed that the magazine take the events online instead. But I got a head shaking no response and was told they did not “like” the internet. They were generous though by offering me the option to do it myself and syndicate my wine column there as well. I did like the internet and took them up on it.
First I contacted my friend and former student from my teaching days, Richard Phillips, who had recently graduated from Auburn with a graphics are degree. He took my ideas and developed the logo. I bought the domain name, BirminghamWine.com. And after meeting with several developers (including one who told me I could not use my own graphic artist, Richard – so they were fired before being hired), I chose Infomedia to develop the website.
I did not actually intend to make money from the website. But I did not want to lose money either. So, I formed an LLC and planned to launch the site once I had enough wine retail and restaurant sponsors to pay for its development. I was delighted with the quick response. And BirminghamWine.com was launched March 1, 2006 along with its e-newsletter Wine Weekly. I had always wanted my own business, and I finally had it with no bricks and no mortar.
I knew that a Birmingham Restaurants website was also needed. I was determined to launch it next. But I was hungry for information on what to develop and how to best monetize it. So I bought (of all things) a book on how to make money on the internet. On one of the first pages the author wrote that no one would ever make money selling advertising on the internet except Google. Given I already was, I tossed the book in the garbage and continued to research and figure it out for myself.
I envisioned Birmingham Restaurants as a one stop shop for foodies to find the best restaurants in Birmingham along with their menus and events. I did not know much about internet search at the time but instinctively thought the name just had to be BirminghamRestaurants.com. Unfortunately, this name was already sold. And I had no means of finding who the owner was because it was privately held, as were many domain names back in the day. Thus I could not even make an offer on it. Putting this problem aside, I began planning the design and functionalities of the website and working with Richard on the logo development. Drawing from my previous experience at a local software company, IACT, I drew rough ideas on paper. It was at IACT where I sat in development meetings with programmers, and I got it as I watched them draw ideas and interrelationships of functionalities on the walls on big white sheets of paper. I saw the connection of the frontend user to the backend programming and came to the realization that (pretty much) anything you can dream up, you can develop if you have the money—a BIG if.
I also searched for online models to get ideas and honestly did not like any of the restaurant directory models. I thought we could do better. The website was to be profile based with multiple pages for overview, menus, map, food pics, chef bios, and more. After a few months I had an agreement with Infomedia for the development, the logo and branding developed, a list of the best restaurants to invite to become members, and a plan for the functionality, and an agreement with Birmingham magazine to syndicate my restaurant and food columns there.
But I still did not have a domain name. Making one last attempt to find the owner of BirminghamRestaurants.com, I found that it had been put into an online, after market auction. I had two options, to bid or “buy it now” for $800. I immediately pulled out my credit card and became the proud owner of what was to become the online destination where millions of people (over the next ten years) would find a restaurant for business lunches, weekend brunches, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, date nights, prom nights, wine dinners, holiday meals, and even popping the question. Beyond locals the website has been and is used by people all over the country and the world, who are planning a trip to Birmingham for business or personal reasons. For example, Food and Wine magazine used it to find restaurants to dine at for an article on Birmingham as a food city.
With the domain in hand, I once again presold the clients and launched in the green, on March 1, 2007 BirminghamWine.com’s first anniversary. I am forever grateful to the chefs and restauranteurs who took a leap of faith in 2007 and signed up for something that did not yet exist before the launch and who have remained members during the 10 years since.
I had two online businesses and was truly a one woman show, working on little sleep, still writing for print, and seeing the sunrise every day for several months—while signing up restaurants, printing and mailing invoices, and publishing their content myself. I soon realized I needed help when I let restaurants invoices go unprinted and unmailed. Thus no checks were coming to my mailbox. I researched online and found FreshBooks.com and set up recurring clients and invoicing there and still use it today with most of our invoicing and payments automated with little hard copies or snail mail involved.
Thankfully Beau Gustafson graciously allowed me to publish his professional food photography from my columns on the website. Eventually I moved my columns from Birmingham magazine and Beau moved his photography talents to B-Metro magazine. And the columns continued and continue to be syndicated from there today.
Yet it is not the columns that are the core of the business. It is the restaurant profiles. Also during the past ten years I became a serial entrepreneur, evolving the restaurants profile model to other geographic markets and to other verticals, including wedding, medical, and legal during these past ten years, all of which have been and remain successful. I am very grateful for all who have been involved in making this happen. I have stood on the shoulders of many along the way. I especially thank Richard and my sons, Jordan and Ross. I could not have done it without all of them. They not only supported me they have worked and still work in the businesses. But the person I owe the most is my dear husband, Kevin for supporting me and my businesses through all these years. He has been there for me when some others along the way did not live up to their agreements and far worse. He has been there when websites were hacked and crashed in the middle of the night. He has been there when I paid large sums for domain names for future development rather than taking him on a cruise, or making a safer investment. He has been there when there were no checks in the mailbox. And he still is!
Most of all I thank God for revealing my path to me. Having the faith (to take the risks) to follow my path has made a tremendous difference in my life professionally, personally, and financially. As my hero, Steve Jobs once said, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.” Mine has not been a linear path. It has not been an easy path. But the dots did connect in ways I could never have imagined. And I am looking forward to the next 10 years!