Some people have asked for a bit more information about the history of eGullet, and why we decided to go the not for profit route. I hope some of you find this stuff informative and not just me talking to myself!
In July of 2006, it will mark five years that we started on this crazy journey of building the best independent food web site on the Internet. Five years, an obscene amount of financial investment, a lot of sweat, a lot of hair loss, a bit of communal psychotherapy, about a thousand choruses of kum-ba-ya, and a lot of highs as well. We’ve gained many friends who have stayed on through all our michegas and various transformations, and some who have gone their separate ways. Time definitely does fly when you are … well, trying to change the world of food online.
I had been involved with on-line communities for many years when Steven Shaw and I decided to launch eGullet in 2001. I had met my lovely wife, Rachel, on the now defunct Prodigy service, twelve years ago – this was back in the day if you told someone that if you met your significant other online, you got strange looks – like perhaps there was something “wrong” with you or you were some sort of closet sociopath, banging on your keyboard at the wee hours of the night wearing only your underwear and engaging in any number of counter-cultural activities. You should have seen the look on the faces of our respective families when we had told them how Rachel and I found each other – blank stares all around, mixed in with a few shakes of sheer terror. Today, meeting potential life mates online is totally commonplace – it’s spawned its own industry of mate-matching services that is estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
It’s not the greatest analogy, but that’s kind of like how The eGullet Society and online food discussion is now perceived compared to the bad old days. Back in 2001, there were but a few food discussion “communities” as we recognize them today. Chowhound was an early pioneer back in 1997 being the first well-known food site that focused on interactive food discussion, and of course you had USENET, the granddaddy of them all, replete with flame wars, Scientologists and child molesters. And there was good ‘ol Prodigy, and of course you had CompuServe and AOL and any number of small online services which no longer exist today. But for the most part, nobody took these forums seriously and they had very little influence on the food industry and food media, and for good reason – most of these communities or sites had very little sense of professionalism and organization, they lacked knowledgeable participants and conscious moderation, the discussion wasn’t meaningful, the software that was used generally stunk, and there was an extremely cavalier attitude towards things like copyright and intellectual property – a problem that still pervades many of these other destinations today.
It’s for these reasons above that well known food professionals, food media and food writers at the time felt a general sense of unease and distrust of the online medium and interacting with the “web folk”. While this also generally true today, especially with the mass proliferation of food blogs where virtually anyone can become a publisher of questionable content, eGullet still has to respect the traditional media and its accepted practices in order to continue to garner their attention and gain their confidence, and we still have to work very hard to organize good content, promote and guide good discussion and attract the best and most knowledgeable members we can get. eGullet is not a site for just anybody – we have a laser focus on food discussion and we have a very serious interest in keeping the discussion civil and friendly. At the same time that we’re trying to bring the food media and food pros on the site, we’re also a watchdog for those industries as well. And while discussion in and of itself is of a social nature and we are very fond of and have a lot of fun with the people we interact with, we are not a social club – those who are inclined in that direction should think very carefully before participating.
There were a number of things we set out to do in order to make us the number one food site on the ‘Net. The first of which was to leverage the best technology possible to do the job – I had spent a great deal of time investigating various types of software that would facilitate good discussion, and I was surprised that no other food web site had put any thought into it. We started out with Ikonboard, an obscure web script written by some hacker kid in England that almost nobody used and nobody heard of, but I was convinced at the time was the best thing on the market. Today Ikonboard is now a company called Invision Power Systems, with staff in multiple continents, and their software runs some of the biggest discussion boards on the Internet – sites that make The eGullet Society look puny in comparison, with well over two or three million posts and hundreds of thousands of registrants. Virtually all discussion sites of consequence use Invision Board today, and every site that has attempted to duplicate the success of the eG Forums also use it as well. They say that the best form of flattery is imitation, but unlike the others who have effectively only used the software as-is and out of the box, we’ve really learned our way around the software and have tweaked it to the point where it’s really tuned to do what we want it to, and we have a very unique relationship with Invision as a company. As one of the early adopters of the product, we once actually hosted their company web site (now they host us) and we are on a first name basis with the software developers and the company founders. We believe in their technology and Invision also believes in eGullet, and the relationship is working out great — we wish them all the success in the world and will continue to implement new and improved versions of their software as they become available.
That being said, no food website has been able to duplicate our success, especially just by using the same software – software and technology is a tool that when properly used is a tremendous asset, but used alone a successful site it won’t make. Besides making sure our technology ducks were in a row, the other thing we set out to do was to surround ourselves with lots and lots of very smart people, people who had areas of specialization and knowledge that Steven and I just didn’t have. While both us of are highly opinionated about the subject of food, wine, cooking and dining, and are bordering on the egomaniacally arrogant, we knew that there were people out there that were much smarter than we were — and thus the key to eGullet.com’s successful launch in August of 2001 was that instead of having the whole show being run only by two obsese early-30s men that were too stupid to heed the warnings of the dot-bomb crash that had laid waste to the Internet a year or so earlier, we would form a site of equals, or affiliates, who had their own web sites and were experts in a particular area, such as restaurants in a particular geographic region or a type of cuisine. Those original six affiliates eventually became over twenty eGullet site Managers, with over 100 hosts and specialists in all.
However with explosive growth, comes growing pains – eGullet.com found itself doubling and tripling and then quadrupling in size and bandwidth requirements every year. In 2004 we picked up Google Adsense and a few other advertisers, and while we were making more than enough money to finance the ongoing costs of maintaining the site – a major milestone that we were all very proud of when it occurred — Steven and I had a lot of concerns about the long-term survivability of the enterprise. In addition to our technology requirements, our infrastructure demanded that we have a lot of staff – who believed in our organization — which we could not expect to compensate with just revenue from advertisements. We also made a commitment early on in the site’s history that all the forum content would be free – so we couldn’t charge our members for it. We talked to a number of venture capitalists who were incredibly impressed with what we had done, and who would have easily bought eGullet out for about a million bucks or so. As I have said in my previous blog entry, Steven and I would both be driving a nicer cars and have a few extra bucks to spend, but we’d end up killing the goose that laid the golden egg – there’d be some management team that would come in, eGullet would be acquired as a property, and all that community we had built and work we had done would be lost.
We could never let that happen – and as I have said many times to many people, I will not destroy what I create. We wanted eGullet to outlive us. Twenty years hence, provided that we don’t all get wiped off the map by some incoming asteroid or human stupidity, the Yellowstone Park super-volcano or the Cumbre Viejo mega-tsunami, we hope that in some shape or form we’ll all be discussing food on some kind of eGullet site two decades from now. To ensure that eGullet would be around for the long haul we decided to become a Not For Profit corporation, seeking 501c3 status as a public charity – and we’ve rebirthed ourselves as The eGullet Society for Culinary Arts and Letters. Several of us in eGullet management became Trustees of the corporation, and Steven Shaw became the Site’s Executive Director.
Our mission is now much broader than being just the best food website on the Internet – among our lofty list of goals in our Statement of Purpose, we seek to increase global awareness in the knowledge of the arts of cooking, eating and drinking, as well as the literature of food and drink – and we believe this should be accessible to everyone. We’re doing it thru offerings like the eGullet Culinary Institute – which is proof positive that we take our members seriously, because the idea wasn’t developed in house and it’s one of our most successful ventures to date. We’re bringing you innovative software like RecipeGullet and great writing from The Daily Gullet. We have all sorts of other ambitious projects planned, like streaming audio (our first eG Radio broadcast launched in January) and video and even books — and of course, our continuing commitment to the eG Scholarships program which raised $20,000 for 2005/2006 for culinary charities we started through the Culinary Trust. But all of these things cost money, and all our income now legally has to come from “related income” such as thru member donations and corporate sponsorship – if they didn’t, I can assure you we’d be running Google Ads the size of Siberia.
If you’ve been an eGullet user for some time and haven’t yet become a Society Donor, please take the time and purchase a subscription in an amount you feel comfortable with. We’re planning to be here for a very long time – and I hope that in another five years, we’ll be able to boast about how many great things we’ve done by being a member supported organization, who really get what we’re about. To those of you who have given already, we greatly appreciate your generosity and hope that you continue to find the site valuable so that we may merit additional gifts in the future.