STARTUP TO WATCH

BigThink.com: Seeking Big Thinkers and Big Sponsors

It could only be a matter of time before someone found a formula for taking the immediacy of YouTube and the entrepreneurship of eBay and wrapping them around an original Internet mainstay — the conversation of the Bulletin Board System (BBS). That time has arrived with the debut of BigThink.com.

BigThink, the brainchild of cofounder Peter Hopkins, started operations in November. The Web site officially went live Jan. 7, and it has quickly developed a varied audience of participants and contributors.

“There are high-quality lecture sites available on the Internet, but there is no real competition for thinkers. So we created a venue to exchange ideas online. Our goal is to help thinking to reach a higher plain,” Hopkins told the E-Commerce Times.

What It Is

Think of BigThink.com as a YouTube of ideas. Hopkins and BigThink’s other cofounder, Victoria Brown, set their sights on going beyond the academic and corporate conferences that bring together leading thinkers. Their goal was to put the elite and their ideas in the same place as everybody else. This sometimes volatile mix can push response and participation in directions that they otherwise would never have gone.

BigThink.com is a venue to exchange ideas online. The Web site provides a twofold approach. It produces interviews with leading thinkers on big-picture topics and their expertise. Hopkins then makes videos of the interviews available viewing and commentary. The Web site also provides a user format for video and audio contributions on topics affecting people, using them as a linchpin for public discussion among the site’s users.

Ultimately, Hopkins hopes the mixture will produces a nexus between talking heads and everyone else. There is no cost to users, and all content is free.

Content Range

BigThink categorizes its interviews with experts and contributions from users into divisions called “Meta” and “Physical.” Within these two general fields, topics are further filtered. Users can search for either ideas or topics through one of several built-in search engines.

For example, Meta topics include discussions on Faith and Beliefs, Identity, Personal History, Inspiration, Life and Death, Love and Happiness, Outlook and the Future, Truth and Justice, and Wisdom.

Physical topics fall into groups such as Arts and Culture, Architecture and Design, Art, Dance, Literature, Music, Theater & Film, and about a dozen more. They range from Business and Economics to the upcoming national elections, medicine, the environment and the world.

“We’re still honing the process and are getting a good stream of daily hits. A large number of users has signed up so far,” said Hopkins.

Early Challenges

Hopkins faced some of the typical challenges endemic to any startup Web-based operation. Among them were design decisions and the development of a user interface.

However, he also had to deal with challenges that at times seemed unsolvable. For instance, establishing a proof of concept was nearly unsurmountable.

“We met lots of skepticism. It was very difficult to convince investors that providing a forum for high-level thought would be a magnet for users,” Hopkins noted. “The case we had to make was that BigThink would be a proper vehicle for upper-level thought and that there is a market for it.”

Technical Tunnels

One of the initial decisions was whether to build a platform or use another one. The choice could have a huge impact on the ultimate success of the user interaction.

“We took a real challenge by deciding to build our own,” said Hopkins.

He and Brown worked with Code and Theory, a New York-based design and software development company, to build a platform from the ground up.

Now that the Web site has launched, Hopkins and Brown want to build out the social network to create a more captivating experience for users. They also want to add more features to the Web site’s offerings.

Propelling Background

The idea behind BigThink.com did not stem from a single “ah-ha” moment. Both Hopkins and Brown were producers at PBS. They reached a point where they began to see that the old-world ways used there were too one-sided. Eventually, they saw the concept of a YouTube.com and Facebook.com environment emerge as a new way for nonprofessionals to get into the act.

“We saw an opportunity for rich content to merge with value-added delivery on the Web. It seemed natural to merge that with an interactive format. Like any idea, it developed in stages,” explained Hopkins.

Once the idea took shape, it took Hopkins and his partner a long time to bring their vision into practice. Once they understood their plan, they had to sell the idea to buyers, users and investors.

Love vs. Money

Hopkins readily admits that at times he was torn between serving the love of the initial mission and making money to sustain BigThink.com. While those two goals may not always seem capable of surviving together, he believes they can.

“Valuable and engaging and profitable content on the Internet are not mutually exclusive. We think people and advertisers will recognize this,” he said, adding that he is convinced that given time and financial support, BigThink.com will be a big success.

The Money Mix

Like many startups, BigThink.com started on a wing and a prayer. In fact, Hopkins credits a number of angel investors with getting him this far.

As he grows the social network of thinker-users, Hopkins is also looking for a number of sponsors to keep the dream alive. Ultimately, he agreed, commercial ads will form one type of sponsorship.

“We are trying to create a very tailored business model and are willing to work with a variety of options,” he said.

Good Prognosis

Insiders’ views are often insightful about new concepts played out on the Internet. In the case of BigThink.com launch, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia.com, had nothing but praise for Hopkin’s venture following a video presentation that featured him on the main page recently.

“I enjoyed my interview, and I think the Web site concept is interesting,” Wales told the E-Commerce Times. “Web video is a good format for thoughtful pieces, as can be seen from the success and popularity of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talks.”

Based on this initial experience with BigThink.com, Wales sees a good business run ahead for the new company.

“I think this will do well,” Wales said.

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