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McClatchy-Tribune  07/15/2014 12:01 AM ET
Durham startup Avelist to add crowd-sourcing feature [The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) :: ]

July 15--Durham startup Avelist is betting that a new crowd-sourcing feature it is introducing on its website will add up to significant gains in visitor traffic to its list-centric website.

That, in turn, would help the fledgling business reach its ambitious fund-raising goal: $1.2 million.

That money, said co-founder and CEO Jody Porowski, would be used to hire developers, build a mobile app "and also to put more marketing juice into the site." Avelist previously raised $300,000 in funding in a friends-and-family round.

The Avelist website was launched last August as an online home for lists created by visitors to the site about anything and everything. A current sampling from the website: "Top 10 Questions for Deep Talks on the Beach"; "Best Quotes about Perseverance"; and "Best Books for a Ladies' Book Club."

But next week Avelist intends to launch new "community lists." Instead of a list created by an individual, these lists will be crowd-sourced. After somebody initiates a list of, say, "Best Books to Tote to the Beach," others will be able to add their own contributions.

When someone who contributes to the list posts it on Facebook, people will be able to link to the list on the Avelist website through the Facebook post.

"I think that's actually going to take off," said Armistead Sapp, senior vice president of research and development at business software giant SAS. "I think she has a good idea here."

Sapp has been mentoring Porowski, who's 27 and a first-time entrepreneur, for about 18 months. They meet every Monday evening at the BurgerFi restaurant in Cary.

Porowski came up with the concept for Avelist three years ago when she had three friends -- none of whom knew each other -- who were getting married and were independently researching venues, where to buy wedding dresses, caterers, photographers, etc.

"It was kind of this epiphany moment," said Porowski. "I realized that no matter what anyone is doing in life, someone else out there ... has already done it. And wouldn't it be great if we could learn from other people's experiences? That's the whole concept behind Avelist."

Building user base

Porowski, 27, has been plugging away at the business ever since -- first on an after-hours basis while holding down a full-time job as an analyst at SAS, then full-time over the past 18 months.

"You hear a lot of myths about overnight successes," Porowski said. "A kind of a common joke in the Internet industry is that every overnight success took years to build."

Co-founder Josh Jodrey, 25, a former engineer at Cisco Systems, is the startup's technical guru.

"Josh is an amazing technical mind," Porowski said. "He is basically a one in a million find for me."

Without doing any advertising, Avelist has attracted about 17,000 active users who have been to the site multiple times and spend an average of about 4 1/2 minutes per visit. About 3,000 of those users have contributed lists to the site.

"We have about 10,000 lists on the platform on all kinds of topics," Porowski said. "It is basically a big data base full of lists."

Porowski "has actually proven that people are interested in what she has to offer," said Lauren Whitehurst, a member of the company's advisory board. "She is providing a service people are looking for." Whitehurst is co-founder of side*, a consulting group that works with entrepreneurs.

Today Porowski and Jodrey are Avelist's only full-time employees. The company also employs seven part-time contractors.

Prove the concept

Avelist is, as they say in the world of startups, "pre-revenue."

The strategy, said Porowski, always has been to focus on building up the site's content and traffic before attempting to come up with ways to make money.

With a consumer-oriented Internet business, said Sapp, you have have to prove the worth of your concept "and monetize it later." "That's certainly how Instagram and Tumblr ... and Pinterest have gotten really big."

Two possibilities for Avelist to generate revenue in the future, said Porowski, are featuring corporate-sponsored lists -- imagine an airline sponsoring a list of top honeymoon sites -- and selling anonymized data about consumer interests gleaned from the site to businesses.

Porowski recently sold her house in North Raleigh -- realizing a $30,000 profit -- in order to cover her living expenses and plow some additional money into the business. She also moved in with her parents to keep her expenses down.

That helped convince Bill Spruill, managing partner of e-commerce data software company Global Data Consortium, to finance Porowski's trips to the West Coast and elsewhere while she seeks $1.2 million in new funding for the business.

"She is clearly committed to the business and is an incredibly smart young lady," Spruill said. "Do I 100 percent believe in her? Absolutely."

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