It's 9 a.m. on a Thursday, and the messages in the recipe chat room on iVillage's Web site are flying fast. Members exchange advice about making jams and preserves between running to the kitchen to get Pop-Tarts and bathing their children. For iVillage, it's a regular day in the neighborhood. "The sense of community, togetherness, and support is what this is all about," says Brenda Hafer, who began visiting iVillage during her pregnancy 2 1/2 years ago and now manages chats on the site.
Women are becoming a force on the Net, and iVillage is reaping the benefits. After years of being dramatically underrepresented, women now make up 43% of online users, up from 35% in 1996. What's more, 55% of next year's first-time Net users are expected to be women, forecasts Forrester Research Inc. Why the increase now? As the number of U.S. homes with PCs climbs to a predicted 45% next year, the Web is fast becoming more of a communications medium for the masses.
That could make iVillage, the No.1 women's site, the Lifetime channel of the Web. With its information on topics ranging from parenting to retirement planning, iVillage already is drawing a crowd. In May, the New York-based startup pulled in more than 3 million different users. That's fewer than one-tenth the number of visitors to the No.1-ranked Yahoo! site, yet it's more than twice the viewership of rival women's sites, including those backed by magazine giants Hearst and Conde Nast Publications, according to ratings service Media Metrix.
PROFITS IN VIEW. Revenue is rising, too: It is expected to triple this year, to $20 million, and double again in 1999, says Hambrecht & Quist analyst Paul Noglows, who also predicts profits next year. Those results have iVillage pondering a public offering later this year or early next year.
What is iVillage's appeal? Above all, it has created a sense of belonging that keeps people coming back. At any one time, there are some 1,400 ongoing discussion boards, which bring together groups of like-minded women who share experiences or help each other solve problems. Such exchanges have been at the core of the company's strategy since it launched its flagship Parent Soup site in January, 1996, on the Web and on America Online Inc., which owns 15% of iVillage. "Women are so pragmatic and time-pressed--they use the Web to find out how to get things done," says Chief Executive Candice Carpenter, a single mother of two children, a rock climber, and a former Outward Bound team leader who came up with the idea for iVillage while working as a consultant to AOL.
Still, iVillage's early lead doesn't guarantee continued success. Some sites, including HomeArts and CondeNet, have deep pockets and the ability to cross-promote across other media properties. "We have brand--that's important when people are dealing with a new medium," says Kathryn Creech, general manager for HomeArts, which is owned by Hearst, the publisher of Cosmopolitan and Redbook magazines. If iVillage is going to keep its lead, it needs new ways of directing people to its site, says analyst Yvette DeBow of Jupiter Communications.
HIGHER PROFILE. iVillage is hatching a scheme to broaden its appeal. Last year, the startup created an umbrella site under the iVillage name and added eight new information areas--including finance, relationships, and working from home. The company also is expanding its Better Health site, which offers health information. And iVillage is moving to get its name out more aggressively. By summer's end, it expects to announce a partnership with a TV broadcasting company that will give it wider promotion.
iVillage also has big plans to cash in on E-commerce. Women typically make about 75% of the purchases in the brick-and-mortar world, and that is expected to be mirrored in cyberspace. In March, the company acquired iBaby, a Web site that sells 20,000 products, and iVillage plans to acquire more retailers, including one that sells health products. After all, in iVillage's view, the Web is a woman's world.