Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:22 pm
Site for anglers preparing to launch nationwide
Two southeastern Wisconsin brothers – Steve and Darin Novak of Mukwonago – started their fishing Web site as a lark. But in the last six months, it has grown into one of the preeminent outdoors Web site in the nation, and the two entrepreneurs are preparing to roll the site out nationwide.
The site – www.lake-link.com – packs information on every lake and major river system in Wisconsin into a powerful database, and allows anglers to add their own information in the form of fishing reports and reviews of each body of water. Anglers fishing the same body of water are able to compare notes and even arrange outings together.
In October of 2001, a special subscriber-only section was added. Paying members can access more than 1,000 topographical contour maps of lakes and use a special fishing log application, which allows them to record and track their catches on each body of water. Fishermen can search their entries from past excursions, analyze fishing patterns and trends, and create reports. A subscription including these interactive features costs $34 per year.
In January, the site received about 3 million page views, according to Steve Novak. That rivals traffic of the now-defunct alloutdoors.com, which was pumped by extensive television and print advertising and was bankrolled to the tune of $9 million.
The Traverse City, Mich. alloutdoors.com went online in 1994 and was to rely heavily on retail sales of outdoor gear for its revenues. While first-year revenue projections were for $8 million, the site spent $6 million on advertising with Campbell-Ewald, Warren, Mich. Initial operating capital came from an Ann Arbor, Mich., venture capital group, and additional revenue came through the creation of affinity Web sites for corporate clients including Jeep and Chevrolet. But the company was dealt a blow when a deal with a publishing giant, EMAP USA, went south as EMAP was purchased by another publisher, Primedia. In July of 2000, alloutdoors.com CEO Charlie Janis had grown the site to 100 employees and was named Michigan Entrepreneur of the Year for E-business by Ernst & Young. By August of 2001, his company had virtually disappeared.
Word of mouth
In contrast, the Novaks’ site is growing largely on word-of-mouth, plus some trade-out advertising with Wisconsin Waters & Woods magazine and the occasional mention on Tom Newbauer’s fishing show on WISN radio.
"We have the traffic coming to the site so that the bigger companies are looking at us as a viable option," Novak said.
In the meantime, the Novaks have been leveraging the geographic specificity of the site to put together highly targeted campaigns for lake-resort owners, guide services and other businesses closely associated with bodies of water.
One major manufacturer, Jackson-based Frabill, Inc., has been advertising on lake-link.com for the last two months.
"We have turned down hundreds of opportunities to participate in other Web sites," Frabill Vice President of Sales Mark Gostisha said. "We track very closely the traffic we get from that site, and it is significant. … There are a lot of fishing sites out there, but if you talk to serious fishermen in Wisconsin, this is their bible. In the old days, you went to the bait store to find out what was going on. Now, people are going to the Web."
Gostisha said he has been impressed enough to recommend the site to two other tackle manufacturers.
While the site is now fully self-sufficient and occupies about 90% of Novak’s time, Novak is still taking some outside Web programing work, although most of it is related to the fishing site. Novak’s eBiz Consulting, for instance, has been working with former Green Bay Packer Brian Noble on a Web site for Noble’s soon-to-premiere television program, Hitting the Outdoors. The show will air 10 a.m. Saturday mornings on ESPN2, and the site will be tied in closely with lake-link.com.
It would be
kind of cool …
The idea for lake-link.com was born on a fishing trip Novak took when he was pursuing his degrees in accounting and marketing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and bartending part-time at Elsa’s on the Park, the popular night spot at 833 N. Jefferson St., Milwaukee. Novak was fishing Pike Lake – between Fifield and Park Falls in Price County – with Elsa’s bar manager Jim Conolly.
"Jim said – ‘You know, it would be kind of cool if there was a Web site where you could find out what was going on at a lake before you got there,’" Novak said. "Now when I graduated from college, I could barely turn on a computer. But I got some books – HTML for Dummies was one of them – and taught myself to program."
The site grew as a hobby, while, during the day, Novak worked for Rockwell Software in West Allis as a programer. Novak described the situation as ideal because he could receive training in whatever technology he wanted.
"In the meantime, I could take whatever I learned and use it on Lake-Link," he said.
Last year, Novak turned down a managerial position with Rockwell to devote himself full-time to his growing Web business. His brother has concentrated on the sales and networking necessary to build awareness among potential advertisers and visitors. The two incorporated Lake-Link as a limited liability corporation on Feb. 11.
On the cusp …
This year, Novak is preparing to penetrate the Illinois market in earnest. Data on Illinois lakes is already present on the site, and Novak said page views of Illinois information are up substantially since the team attended the Chicago Sport Show.
Apart from Wisconsin and Illinois, lake-link.com currently offers data on waters in Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota.
"Our goal is to have a lake-link.com for every state," Novak said.
"They are very thorough, and they work on this very hard – it is their livelihood," Gostisha said. "To do that nationally, you will have to take that effort times fifty. You not only have to collect the information, but attract the users."
But Novak is optimistic that, through intelligent programing, they have paved the way for rapid expansion into other states.
"The way we have it set up, it just takes a lot of data entry," Novak said. "After that, it’s just like flipping a switch and another state is on the site."
Apart from data entry, building nation-wide reach will take manpower – and money. The brothers have hired their first salesperson and charged him with getting them in the door with national entities. They are also hoping to bring in outside investors to take them to the next level.
"We went down the venture capital route," Novak said. "They like to suck the life out of a company – they take control. We are currently seeking a single or group of angel investors."
But even without outside funding, Novak said the site has plenty of existing and potential revenue streams. The site currently has about 300 paying subscribers, and gains about four more each day. A discount tackle section of the site sells gear where paying subscribers get a special discount. Small advertisers are buying into the site to pump their resorts and lake-oriented businesses to highly targeted groups of anglers – who are likely to be fishing their area in the next few weeks.
"We are hearing from real estate agents who want to work with us to sell lake property," Novak said. "We are working on that application. We have people who want to work with us on boat sales. It just all takes manpower."
March 15, 2002 Small Business Times, Milwaukee