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Wasteland

Stephen Yagielowicz
Voted the Best BDSM & Fetish Site two years in a row by AVN and the People's Choice Awards, BDSM community icon Wasteland.com has been featured on A&E, Fox, the BBC, and has appeared in Fetish Magazine, Boston Magazine, BDSM Magazine, and Hustler's Taboo. XBiz recently caught up with Wasteland owner Colin Rowntree, who is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his website this year, and asked him about the long road that led up to this point and where it would lead in the future.

XBIZ: How did you develop Wasteland and your business model?

COLIN: In 1994 we started, basically accidentally — we had no idea that we would end up online. My wife and I had been running some mail order catalogs for jewelry and giftware, things along those lines. Early in 1994 we were attending a New York Fashion Boutique Show and came across a leather lingerie wholesaler called Ecstasy Leather and it looked like a good deal to expand our line of mail order catalogs, so we took some pictures of girls in the outfits that looked very lovely.

There was this new thing called the Internet out there, and we thought that if we put this thing online that we might get some people to call us for a catalog and maybe even buy something, but at that point, nobody was really buying anything online. So we stuck up as much of the catalog online as we could, using these huge GIF files that were optimized for Mosaic, and got a listing in the early search engines like AltaVista — and all of a sudden we were getting close to a thousand visitors a day.

Several weeks later we got a phone call from our service provider wondering what we were doing, as we were burning up a lot of bandwidth that was going to cost us a lot of money. So we took a look, and sure enough, a lot of people were coming to look at the pretty girls, but nobody was buying anything or ordering any catalogs. So we thought, "maybe we can charge them to look at that..."

We put up a very primitive form of ecommerce where they could either call us up with their credit card number or email us the first half of the number in one email and then send the second half in another email, and for a mere $10 a year, they could look at the catalog all they want. Within two days we were piling in hundreds of dollars a day in $10 transactions, but still nobody was buying anything.

This went on until late 1994, when I decided to scrap the idea of trying to sell anything and decided to put as much content up there as possible and upped the price to $50 a year. Not knowing any better, I basically went on to the BBS and downloaded as much stuff as I could, put it behind a member's gateway, upped the price to $50 a year, which increased the perception of value, and bang! A paysite was born.

In a short amount of time, we found out that it was pretty darn illegal to be downloading images from BBS and decided to start shooting things on our own. That was the beginning of our business model.

XBIZ: 1994 wasn't a very e-commerce-friendly time. What challenges did you face in those early years?

COLIN: Our problems were with trying to figure out how to transact the actual credit card sales. There was no infrastructure, no secure HTTPS, none of that. We were sitting here with an old-fashioned credit card machine, keying in the numbers and setting up files for individual customers. When we got to the point of a rebilling model, we would take a look at the files for that month and send them an email asking if they wanted to stay, and if so, we would key their numbers back in again.

That was one of the big challenges. The other one was how to actually keep track of everyone. We had a filing cabinet full of files and used Eudora as our membership database, which was kind of a funky way to do things. It wasn't really until late 1996 that people came along with the concept of using databases to keep track of all of this. The early challenges were basically e-commerce itself because nobody knew how to do it.

I think that it was in early 1996 that the idea of putting some kind of movie online began to come around. We went through the entire Java-frame-push nightmare learning curve until Real Player came along with a server-side platform, and then we started doing movies.

XBIZ: Many players in the online adult marketplace attempt project after project, searching for something that works, but Wasteland has always had a consistent focus on the fundamentals that has brought it success. How would you characterize your approach?

COLIN: I think that pretty much everyone in the early days of adult entertainment on the Internet was focusing on trying to do one thing and trying to do it really well. And then along came the concept of trying to build 10 paysites a week and capture every possible marketspace. We looked at doing that a little bit but realized that we didn't have to make a better mousetrap because we already had the best mousetrap. We figured out pretty early the concept of branding. We haven't changed our logo, typeface or byline in 10 years. We haven't gone to the cookie-cutter type of tour where everything is visible without scrolling. People are intelligent, and if they want to read what's in there, then they can scroll down the page. It doesn't have to be this cascading style sheet, blinking, boring page that does nothing but try to get you to hit the join button.

Our primary method to get people through the tour and join with either a trial or a full-pop membership is not to shock and titillate them, it's more of an education about what's inside and what we're all about. We're looking for the community-type people.

XBIZ: What sets Wasteland apart from other sites within your niche?

COLIN:We were lucky in some regards, and through a lot of hard work I developed the idea of using staff writers, photographers and things along those lines that were in the bondage community, which really set us apart from any of the Johnny Come Lately-types who just bought some content and threw it up, because we were really appealing to that community. That's how we've always been directed, as a community-based site targeting a specific group of people with a specific interest.

I don't think that there's a need to cover everything in the known universe; you know the old adage, "If you throw enough shit at the wall, then something is bound to stick." I tend to personally like to do something to the best of my ability and of high quality. I don't have to be the richest person on the planet, but I can have something that I'm proud of and I enjoy — and that comes through, and people see it, and that's what's driven our business throughout the years.

As of lately I'm watching some of the largest players now go back to the early concept of realizing that they don't need 1,100 paysites; they just need a small group of sites that covers everything, and then take care of those more intensely to make a better product.

I think that for the future, we need to be striving toward excellence because the customer is no longer all google-eyed thinking, "Wow, there's naked women on the Internet — I'll go buy the first thing I see!" They are much more savvy and holding up Internet entertainment to the same standard as Hollywood movies and TV. It's gotta be original programming. Something that's fresh, new, updated and compelling. They'll cancel Showtime if it's not as good as HBO just to cut costs.

XBIZ: With a tagline that reads "The Darker Side of Desire," and a theme that is well beyond 'missionary position' fare, one might assume that Wasteland would be a large target for controversy, especially when you consider the amount of media exposure the site has enjoyed. Have you faced any legal challenges because of Wasteland's content?

COLIN: We haven't had any real trouble because we have stayed well within the parameters of what's legal in every place that we can find that's got any kind of opinion on it. The thing that differentiates us from other sites that are doing really extreme S&M is that we are into consensual bondage: the kinds of things that lots and lots of people are doing in their own bedrooms. They're playing slap and tickle, things along those lines. We do have films where consensual couples are taking it to the max, with the types of things that people do in that community, but we don't do things like extreme piercing, blood letting and all of this crap that we don't want to have anything to do with. That's really more of a deviant behavior than the pretty good, clean, healthy, familyvalues bondage and discipline that we're into.

It's the 'darker side of desire,' not the extreme side of desire, like "I want to hurt you as much as possible" — it has nothing to do with that. It's erotic power exchange. It's the psychological interplay between the dominant personality and the submissive personality in a sexually charged atmosphere.

Being degrading to a sexual partner has nothing to do with BDSM; that's just basically abuse. For it to fit into the category of what we promote and what we publish, it has to be consensual and it has to be respectful. We don't do things that are degrading to the talent. We have a lot of lifestyle people that we shoot with, and they basically write the scripts for that stuff. This puts us in the position of having a true community-based site, rather than a circus sideshow. We don't try to offend anybody; we're as much a part of society as is the gay community.

XBIZ: Are you facing any other challenges?

COLIN: We've had sudden issues of fraud in the last six or seven months. Not from the consumers, but from idiot webmasters who join our affiliate program and use stolen credit card databases and try to find clever ways to get paid out. By the time you catch them, they're long gone.

XBIZ:Wasteland's past holds a lot of memories, while its present is a showcase of excellence in a community-driven website. But what about its future, and that of its creator?

COLIN: I don't know where my level of active management will be in the future, as I'd rather be getting more into the creative process, such as working on full-length feature films. In fact, I've been working with our joint production company on making historically costumed, full-length film, that have some spanking in them, and they're doing quite well, so that's one thing I know I'll be doing more of.

As far as Wasteland goes, I can see it going on as long as I have the staff and people to leave it to in my will who want to run it. The thing has got legs, and it's not going to go away. Even if recurring billing went away, we have enough people in our community that will mail in $20 bills to keep it going.

XBIZ: Technologies and markets are evolving, and the growth in the number of online businesses creating offline enterprises is increasing. Do you have any plans to expand the distribution of Wasteland's video programming beyond the web?

COLIN: We're already on European cable and satellite. We did that about a year and a half ago with a Dutch company and now supply European broadcasters with original film footage. I haven't released this stuff to anybody in North America because I really have a profound respect and fear for the FCC and the Justice Department; and whenever you touch the airwaves and start coming into people's television sets, you open yourself up to a world of hurt.

Maybe if Microsoft comes up with a set-top box that has a well-guarded, adult-only channel subscription or some of the other services that are being bandied about, then we might participate in that. But I'm thinking more along the lines of content delivery on a micro-payment basis, almost like iTunes. We've got a whole thing set up with various video clips and projects from the past where for six or seven bucks you can get the stuff and keep it forever, and that's becoming extremely popular with consumers.

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