Los Angeles Business Journal
Clique Art

Gallery’s social networking site takes page from MySpace

Los Angeles Business Journal Staff

Creative Class: Lisa Schultz at the gallery in Culver City associated with TheWole9 Web site.
Creative Class: Lisa Schultz at the gallery in Culver City associated with TheWole9 Web site.
If MySpace is for carefree teenagers and Facebook for overachievers, then TheWhole9 is home to the creative class of metropolitans who collect art, dine out and buy season tickets to the Hollywood Bowl.

“It’s probably one of the most sophisticated social networking sites out there,” said Tracy Larrua, a member of the Web site. “It’s not just for dating. It’s not just for networking. It’s a community. And you can find those out-of-the-way restaurants you would never have heard about but from a friend.”

TheWhole9 is one of the burgeoning class of social networking and dating Web sites striving to become their own renditions of the 70 million-member MySpace and 28 million-member Facebook. TheWhole9 bills itself as a site that suits the aesthetics of those who love art, music and fine dining.

Some scoff at TheWhole9’s business plan, but already it has about 5,000 members, mostly in L.A. and some in New York and San Francisco. It also has big plans to build online communities, coupled with offline events, in major metropolitan cities across the country.

The site, free of advertising, has an inviting design that flashes images of beautiful people, oil paintings and chic restaurants. Members can put up their profile and portfolios.

They are photographers, artists, graphic designers, publicists and marketers, and most of them are 35 years and older. Locally, they meet and mingle at a regular offline gallery in Culver City where artworks of the members are showcased.

Lisa Schultz, an events marketer who launched TheWhole9, turned her 2,200-square-foot office into a gallery and holds events every other month. Gallery openings draw up to 300 people at a time, she said.

Schultz already has sunk about $600,000 into the site to get it designed and running. Including the amount of time and resources pulled from her marketing business, Out of Bounds Inc. – whose client list includes Virgin Atlantic Airways and Togo’s – she admits her investment actually is closer to $1 million.

Schultz hopes to recoup that cost beginning next year with limited advertising because she doesn’t want to be like other sites that “build a community then exploit it with a barrage of advertising.”

She hopes targeted advertising on certain pages will generate $20,000 a month. She also plans to charge a $40 annual fee for showcasing portfolios and estimates about 5,000 people would pay. That would be $200,000.

But is that realistic?

“She’s dreaming,” said Ron Frankel, who authored The Revenge of Brand X, a book about building brands online. “Everyone thinks lots of eyeballs equal potential advertising revenue, but just because you get a lot of people to come to a party doesn’t mean they have a good time.”

He said only about 5 percent of any total user base ever transacts e-commerce on a site. Moreover, to get 5,000 people to pay the annual fee, at least half million users would need to be registered, he said.

Frankel relegated TheWhole9 to other social networking sites that he believes will die a “slow, miserable, painful death.”

However, Schultz, who has run a successful marketing business for 10 years, said she didn’t launch the business “to make a million bucks.

“We went into this thinking we can create something really valuable where people can connect,” Schultz said. “At the end of the day, I’m living out my dream, which is to bring people together in a meaningful way.”

Artist Joshua Elias, who showcases his work on the site and at the offline gallery, believes TheWhole9 has done just that for him and his audience.

“The people on the site know the art scene,” Elias said. “They’re less likely to say, ‘I love your painting,’ and more likely to say ‘What are you going to be painting next?’ They’re more interested in my career.”

Schultz said TheWhole9 is distinct in that it’s not like a job site or a dating site where once you find a job or a mate, there’s no reason to go back. It’s also not a popularity contest about how many friends can be collected on a page.

“It’s a place to stay and live out your life,” she said.

Copyright 2007 Denice Lewis.  All Rights Reserved.