By David Rocks
Doug Kruhoeffer is the consummate weather guy. Every job he ever had has been related to weather. He has a degree in meteorology from Penn State University. He has been the weatherman for more than a score of radio and television stations. He has written a book called Prairie Skies -- about weather. And he has launched three weather-related startups in his quarter-century in the business. "You might say I've always been in awe of the weather," Kruhoeffer says. "I love the sheer unpredictability of it. There's a certain thrill when you get a forecast right."
Now Kruhoeffer is tapping the power of the Internet to help more people get the right forecast more often. His latest venture, Digital Cyclone, runs a Web site called My-Cast.com, where users can set up a page that will show weather conditions at various locations -- home, work, a favorite ski area, or anywhere else in the U.S. Unlike the standard National Weather Service data on many Web sites, though, My-Cast offers an hour-by-hour breakdown of conditions over the next nine hours, as well as a forecast for every six hours during the next two days.
Even better, My-Cast's forecasts are highly localized, reflecting the weather at various locations around a metropolitan area. In Los Angeles, for example, My-Cast can give the different conditions for Santa Monica, Hollywood, or Burbank, not to mention far-flung Bakersfield or Malibu. Or in Chicago, "there can be a 40F difference between the lakefront and Naperville" 30 miles to the west, says Kruhoeffer. "We're not content with one-size-fits-all weather." So far, some 150,000 people have registered with the site.
So how does a company make money personalizing weather? My-Cast.com features ads targeted at users based on where they live and activity profiles they fill out when registering. But more importantly, Kruhoeffer says, are the relationships Digital Cyclone has developed with 35 television stations and a handful of newspapers around the U.S. Those outlets pay Digital Cyclone between $700 and $2,500 monthly to use weather models and localized forecasts for their online operations. My-Cast "is a tool that really keeps people coming back to our Web site," says Gary Cannalte, chief meteorologist at WISC-TV in Madison, Wis.
That business model could insulate Digital Cyclone from the turbulence now buffeting most Internet startups. While Kruhoeffer is happy to reap whatever ad revenues he can from the My-Cast site, he says three-fourths of this year's $1.5 million or so in sales will come from licensing agreements. "A year ago, many venture capitalists asked us: 'What are you doing messing around with TV stations -- you should raise money and grow fast," Kruhoeffer says. "If we had listened to them, there's no question we would be out of business right now."
For Kruhoeffer, working with broadcasters is a natural fit. His first job -- when he was just 16 -- was as a $20-a-week meteorologist for a local radio station in his hometown of Lancaster, Pa. Then, while studying meteorology at Penn State, he got a job with a television station in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where he filled in delivering the weather during weekend newscasts. He later went on to work as a meteorologist at stations in Minneapolis, Chicago, and nationally for the now-defunct Satellite News Channel. Today, he works as the weatherman for WCCO-TV in Minneapolis, using the name Paul Douglas. "Doug has always loved the weather," says Bob Michaels, a high-school buddy. Michaels ought to know: He got Kruhoeffer his first radio job and helped him choose the pseudonym (his full name is Douglas Paul Kruhoeffer) while the two drove Michaels' VW Microbus to the job interview in 1975.
SOFTWARE FOR SPIELBERG.
Kruehoeffer, 42, also has plenty of experience as an entrepreneur. While he was still in high school, he launched a company called Total Weather that delivered forecasts to a group of 11 radio stations in Pennsylvania. Then in 1989, he started EarthWatch, which sold a computer program that displays three-dimensional graphics of weather for TV stations to jazz up their broadcasts. The company grew in stature when film director Steven Spielberg took note of the software and used it to create images for the film Jurassic Park. Kruhoeffer sold EarthWatch in 1997 so that he could focus on his new project, Digital Cyclone.
Kruhoeffer started with roughly $300,000 of his own money to launch the company in the summer of 1998. He then raised $2.8 million from first-round investors early last year. Then in February, 2000, A.H. Belo Corp. -- publisher of the Dallas Morning News and owner of 17 TV stations -- ponied up an additional $5 million. Last fall, Digital Cyclone launched its My-Cast Web site. Today, Digital Cyclone has 28 employees, and Kruhoeffer expects to start earning a profit late this year or early next year.
Key to his efforts will be new initiatives aimed at mobile devices. This spring he expects to begin offering My-Cast on Palm computers and some mobile phones. For that kind of service, he says, consumers and business travelers may be willing to pay an annual subscription fee. He has already signed up trucking company C.H. Robinson, which will roll the service out to its drivers. "It's pretty empowering to be driving along and see whether you're going to be snowed on or rained on," Kruhoeffer says. And if the prediction is right, it might even be thrilling.
Rocks is a BusinessWeek technology editor and writer in New York