Minneapolis Web start-up gets its Thrill On

  • Article by: JUSTIN MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 27, 2013 - 6:42 PM

The Minneapolis company’s website caters to outdoor enthusiasts. But as with other social media, generating revenue remains a challenge.

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Co-founders Brian Howe, left, and Shayne Mitchell show off Thrill On, their social media platform for adventures such as snowboarding, biking and hunting.

Photo: Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com ,

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It’s not every day you can reach a market that includes surfers, hunters and motor sports enthusiasts.

But that’s a snapshot of the array of outdoors types the founders of the Minneapolis-based Web start-up Thrill On are aiming to reach.

Shayne Mitchell, 38, an outdoor enthusiast and entrepreneur, started a site about a year and a half ago as a small venture focused on the outdoors. Mitchell, now Thrill On CEO, thought there was enough interest in the market but he needed help with funding and access.

That’s when Brian Howe, 48, a former head of marketing at Target.com, got involved and suggested taking the venture in a more social, community-oriented direction.

“It was one of those deals where we knew if we were going to do it, we had to go fast,” said Howe, Thrill On co-founder and chief strategy officer. “We committed to it together and then went out in the next few months and raised over $1 million to get the capital going.”

Initially as ThrillOn.com in July 2012, the start-up is still in the development stage and has yet to generate revenue. But as Howe pointed out, it’s a long haul for social media websites to bring in revenue: Facebook and Twitter took years to become profitable.

“There hasn’t been a place until Thrill On where you can bring all of the world’s digital content to one place or one category and give it life through social interaction,” Howe said. “It’s sort of Pinterest meets GoPro.’’

Which is to say it combines the interest-driven tagboard format of the popular website Pinterest with the first-person video style associated with GoPro cameras.

Essentially, the site channels the outdoor experience by allowing users to interact with videos and photos through discovering, organizing and sharing.

“Pinterest does great for inside the home, but they kind of stop at the front door,” Howe said.

Thrill On users can create a profile; choose specific interest areas; and then discover, share and organize their content, essentially creating a social network for the adventurous and active.

The website’s interest “communities” range from skateboarding and golf to scuba diving and fishing.

Thrill On is driven by a core group of five full-time staff members and two part-timers working out of the downtown Minneapolis business incubator CoCo.

Thrill On’s online following has grown to about 100,000 users and nearly 400,000 Facebook fans while attracting almost $2 million in investment support, according to Howe.

While Howe and Mitchell are keeping their focus on the user experience for now, they recognize the potential for advertising.

“We do not want to take our eye off the ball on the user side and just start a revenue stream,” Howe said. “But the future is really, really powerful from an advertising standpoint alone.’’

So far, Thrill On has about 2,200 different brand pages from a variety of companies, including GoPro, Under Armour and Cabela’s.

One business that has shown early interest is the Minnesota-based power sports company Polaris, which has created brand pages for Polaris snowmobiles, off-road machines and motorcycles.

“I think it can be an interesting platform for Polaris and it can really take off,” said Steve Eastman, vice president of parts, garments and accessories for Polaris. “We think it’s more about loyalty; more word-of-mouth. That’s why this is a really logical place for us to tap into.”

For Polaris, Thrill On is an opportunity to create interaction between consumers and brands. “They’re capturing content and they want to share their experiences and we think that’s really cool,” Eastman said.

As Thrill On continues to quickly grow, challenges arise.

Chris Wexler, director of media strategy and interactive at Campbell Mithun’s Compass Point Media, agrees.

“Social networks like this work well when they ladder off behaviors in the real world,” Wexler said. “Their challenge right now is building a community, building on that interconnectedness.”

While it’s obviously important to continue pushing user growth, Wexler said, integrating advertising and creating revenue early is crucial for start-ups like Thrill On.

“It’s not 2008,” said Wexler, who is not connected with Thrill On. “They have to be thinking about advertising really early on. Figuring out a way that is native and additive rather than distracting is important.”

Video advertising is becoming the norm, Wexler said, and with Thrill On’s format relying heavily on this medium, it would be a logical point of ad integration for the site.

The Thrill On crew acknowledges the never-ending nature of improving the online experience.

“There are so many things that I want to do with the site from a functional standpoint,’’ Mitchell said. “The platform itself and the mobile experiences are a fraction of the way to where I want them.”

For example, the team is currently working on fine-tuning an app for mobile users, who are roughly one-third of their total users, Mitchell said.

“With this concept, it makes total sense,” Mitchell said. “The people we’re after are out and about.”

Justin Miller is a University of Minnesota intern working at the Star Tribune.

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