The white board leaning against the only available wall space is littered with hastily drawn ideas, brainstormed and collected, then circled, with lines branching off in all directions.
On either side of the room sits a desk, one for each of the company’s co-founders. In the middle there’s room enough for a couple of chairs and an end table.
Here, in this unassuming office space above a newsstand advertising tobacco and lottery tickets, an Internet empire takes form.
The concept was formed when Kerry Bowbliss and Sherry Lombardi, both mothers to two young children and neighbors living just three blocks away from each other, separately envisioned an online space for women like them. What they needed, and what they couldn’t find, they said, was a place for parents to find local events, activities, listings and reviews.
So they made it and named it Hulafrog.
"They say when you’re a parent 90 percent of your life happens within five miles of your front door,” Lombardi, a Internet marketing expert, said, sitting behind her desk in Hulafrog’s office in Atlantic Highlands. “You have moms who need to know what they can do with their kids every day. Connecting parents to resources and events in their community is what Hulafrog does.”
Bowbliss, a former publisher, and Lombardi launched their first Hulafrog site in the Greater Red Bank area in 2010, constantly working and tweaking their single site while envisioning so much more. Now, two years later, Hulafrog has launched new sites in 25 markets spreading out from Connecticut to California. By the end of next year, the duo expects Hulafrog in as many as 200 markets. Right now it’s just a start, a trial run of sorts. When they consider the data – populations, median incomes, schools, etc. – they estimated there are about 2,000 markets in the United States that could sustain their own Hulafrog sites.
It’s not if Hulafrog will become a dominate Internet presence in local markets throughout the country, it’s when.
Unlike news aggregators and hyperlocal news sites, the focus of Hulafrog isn’t on original content. Save for a few staff picks and a line or two of copy explaining a promotion or activity, the content is automated or generated by the users who populate each site. Reviews, comments and topics are all the product of readers who return to their respective sites in droves.
Though they expected success, Lombardi and Bowbliss have been surprised at the high levels of traction the sites have generated among moms. According to surveys completed by Hulafrog visitors, more than 89 percent have gone to an event they’ve seen listed on their local site. Even more surprising, perhaps, and why Hulafrog may be able to achieve profitability more quickly than comparable sites that appeal to broader demographics, is that roughly 82 percent of Hulafrog readers have visited a business based on a listing they’ve seen on the site.
When it comes to selling Hulafrog to advertisers, that’s the best kind of data.
Each site is staffed by a publisher, who moderates content and fills out calendars, but spends most of her time on the sales side of the business, reaching out to clients, promoting the brand, and searching for new talent to open other Hulafrog sites.
And it’s in its staff that Hulafrog will find its greatest success, Lombardi believes. The women who run Hulafrog sites throughout the country are educated and highly motivated. Like Lombardi and Bowbliss, who left the corporate world to raise their children, Hulafrog’s business model draws smart and business savvy women who want to continue raising their kids without abandoning their careers.
When Hulafrog posted an ad in New York City seeking talented women to join its ranks, Bowbliss said more than 150 responded within a few hours. Among those who applied were women with MBAs, former executives and longtime professionals from a multitude of fields. The initial response was a bit of a surprise, but not unexpected, Lombardi said. Though these women’s lives have changed, steering them away from a demanding, full-time career, their motivation and aspirations still exist.
“It’s really a win-win situation. For them it’s a great part time job that’s aligned with where they are in their lives,” Lombardi said. “Their lives have changed and (full-time employment) doesn’t fit in their life goals any more. Hulafrog is something they can do on their own terms.
“They’re willing to trade high salaries for flexibility. We’re taping into this talent pool of women, who are highly educated and have business experience, but have kind of been sitting on the sidelines.”
Prospective Hulafrog publishers are given a 14-week course called Hula University where they learn the ins and outs of the business. Prior to launch, Hulafrog publishers build out the site, edit listings, post events, and make contacts within the business community. With the job being part time and the focus being on sales and recruitment, Lombardi describes Hulafrog as a kind of digital-age Avon.
“It’s a partnership and revenue sharing,” Bowbliss said. “When publishers go out and make sales they’re getting commissions.”
With the model somewhat similar to that of the direct sales business, Bowbliss said she expects staff turnover, but the ever-growing list of women looking to get on board has waylaid any immediate concerns.
And in terms of competition from other sites with similar models, Lombardi and Bowbliss aren’t too concerned. Many competing sites are focused on one city or region and other sites with similar information, like business listings and events for kids, can’t compete in terms of branding and design.
Hulafrog’s growth, so far, has been steady. As a startup, Hulafrog has been a success, though it’s far from meeting Lombardi and Bowbliss’s ultimate expectations. While they pursue major investment, Hulafrog will have to settle for slow and manageable growth, for now anyway.
“It’s led to some tough decisions about what we can and can’t do. If you’re starting a new business, especially these days, you’re forced to be creative without a lot of money.
It requires you pull back on expanding too quickly, because you can’t,” Lombardi said. “It’s a pretty lean and mean team here. With a few resources we’ve gotten to the point where we know it’s expandable, scalable. And as we generate revenue more and more it allows us to grow.”