Mark Ruthenberg has ridden the dot-com wave up and down

Entrepreneurs have made millions and lost millions pursuing their dreams on the Internet.

Mark Ruthenberg has the fortune, or misfortune, of having experienced both sides of the dot-com coin.

In the mid-1990s, Ruthenberg struck it rich with a multimedia firm called DiscoverWare. The company, which is still thriving in Calgary, was developing a range of interactive courses that could be delivered through CD-ROMs. It has since moved its platform on to the Internet, but even back in 1994, the concept of computer-based learning was generating a lot of buzz.

New executives were brought in to take DiscoverWare to the next level and Ruthenberg decided to cash in his shares and pursue his own business plans. In 1995, the Internet was just taking off, and the natural born salesman had seen its potential to become a massive consumer tool.

In December of that year, he poured his money and energy into founding UWannaWhat. The company created a massive directory of restaurants, shops, services, and things to do in Calgary and, later, in other major cities. It was a place people could turn to, to plan their evenings, weekends, and to eventually purchase products online.

Ruthenberg launched an advertising campaign to draw attention to the site, spending close to $300,000 on newspaper ads, radio spots, T-shirts, and even a float for the Stampede parade. At one point he had 12 employees marketing the company’s services, drumming up advertising for the site and plugging listings into a database directory.

Problem was, advertisers weren’t buying into the concept, at least not yet. A little more than a year later, Ruthenberg had burned up $1 million of his own money pursuing UWannaWhat, along with another $300,000 from outside investors. With creditors banging at the door, he was forced to throw in the towel.

“It was definitely before its time in a lot of respects,” says Ruthenberg. “But it wasn’t just that. I made a lot of mistakes along the way.”

Ruthenberg has capsulated those expensive errors, into an online resource called Lessons Learned from the Bleeding Edge (www.foundlocally.com/lessons.pdf).

Lessons include, It’s Easy to Make Big Mistakes With Big Money and Bad Hiring is Worse Than Being Understaffed.

“People talk a lot about having the first mover advantage,” he says. “Well, it doesn’t help to be first to market if you’re too early. I was definitely at the bleeding edge — in fact, I bled myself dry.”

Ruthenberg is trying to learn from his own mistakes in his latest venture, another Internet lifestyle and entertainment portal called FoundLocally.com. FoundLocally was launched in November 1999, with financing from Robert Travis, a Calgary partner in recruiting firm Boyden Global Executive Search, and brother Samuel Travis, president of Advantage Tech Inc., a Calgary outplacement firm. In addition to being an investor, Robert Travis serves as FoundLocally’s president.

FoundLocally now offers local directories and calendars of events for 12 Canadian cities, from Vancouver and Victoria to Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie. Within a year, the firm hopes to have 20 cities live.

One of the things Ruthenberg says he’s done right this time around, is that he has fully automated the service. Rather than have teams of salespeople calling up businesses trying to get them to list their offerings, FoundLocally offers a self-registration system, so businesses can do the work themselves.

While FoundLocally builds up its database of companies and activities, Ruthenberg offers Web design and development services on the side. The strategy appears to be paying off. The site boasts 100,000 visitors a month, and Ruthenberg says the operation is close to turning a profit.

“With UWannaWhat, I tried going for broke and got burned. I’m being much more careful this time around. I’ve got the system automated to the point where I can add new cities with very little additional investment or risks. Eventually the network effect will kick in, and the business will take off on its own power.”