BUSINESS PROFILE

Toby Sembower thrives on building web presence for niche companies


Toby Sembower, CEO and founder of Digital Brands, left, is shown with the Digital Brands team at the office at 15 SE First Ave. in downtown Gainesville.

Erica Brough/Staff
Published: Monday, December 3, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 7:36 p.m.

Digital Brands launched its first website, DatingAdvice.com, in March and already has 170,000 unique monthly visitors, a half million page views and monthly revenues in six figures.

Facts

Toby Sembower

Age: 37
Occupation: CEO and founder, Digital Brands Inc.
Personal: Married, two children, ages 2 and 5
Pets: "None, but pondering a bulldog."
Dream partners for lunch: John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Jesus and the Three Stooges in character
Last book read: "Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitsu"
Favorite TV show: "The Men Who Built America"
Playing in his car: "Veda Hubbell" by Gainesville band Bloom
Hobbies: Beer-tasting; office-chair volleyball; watching the Gators, Dolphins and Heat; "Anything involving my kids."
Education: B.S. in public relations, minor in business administration, University of Florida, 1999

The company and the dating site are the brainchild of Toby Sembower.

After selling his creations — creditcards.org and other credit card comparison sites — Sembower briefly tried retirement at age 35 before opening Digital Brands in downtown Gainesville last December.

The business model is to build websites for subjects that are lacking a good, authoritative source on the web.

DatingAdvice.com includes articles about dating, including from CNN contributor Dr. Wendy Walsh, and reviews of dating sites. Recent columns include "How Long Should We Wait Before Having Sex?" by Walsh and "Getting a Boyfriend for Christmas."

The company makes its money when visitors click through to a dating service such as match.com or eHarmony to sign up.

Digital Brands also recently launched PrintingReviews.com to rate online printing services for people ordering business cards, T-shirts, brochures and the like, and has started work on a third site Sembower would not reveal. He said they have identified seven different subject areas.

"We find these little niche areas that don't have a good site. There are a lot of bad sites out there," he said.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in public relations, Sembower said he picked up some web marketing skills working in the publishing industry, first at Naylor in Gainesville and then in his home state of Pennsylvania.

After working on a website for a co-worker's husband in the collections industry, the company that built the site liked his work and paid him to work on other clients' sites to make changes and improve their ranking in search engines.

After consulting for different companies, he realized that while he was paid a flat fee they would go on making money for years to come. While trying to figure out how to get a slice of that revenue, he stumbled upon affiliate marketing in which websites get a cut for a referral to another website that leads to a purchase.

He started the credit card rating sites in 2004. Working as a one-man operation, he was able to live wherever he wanted, so he returned to Gainesville — where his wife is from — in 2007. He sold the sites two years ago to Oversee.net of Los Angeles, which allowed him to retire at 35 after working for them for a year during the transition.

"I thought, ‘This is going to be great. I'll just hang around the house and pursue some hobbies,' but literally two hours into it I think I'd cleaned my garage and after that I thought, ‘Wow, now what?"

He realized none of his friends had retired and his wife liked having her own space with the kids at their home in the Town of Tioga.

"There's kind of a mommy culture where they all hang out with the kids all day and you don't want to be the one dad there," he said.

More than that, he said he missed marketing and creating websites.

"Once you're able to take a step back from this life that you think is holding you back from things you actually realize that that's the path you chose for a reason," he said.

He wanted to create a company culture like the one he saw at Oversee.net and at Google — with an open floor plan where people collaborate and love where they work. He wanted to be downtown among the young tech companies and rented second-floor office space over the former Ichiban Sushi location on Southeast First Avenue.

The 10 employees sit in clusters — one for content providers and marketing, with design and development an arm's length away. Instead of retreating to a corner office, Sembower's desk is in the midst of the content cluster.

The company buys lunch from a downtown restaurant for all employees every day and provides free snacks and drinks. On Tuesday after lunch, employees set up a putt-putt course in the office, one of the weekly contests they hold with a gift card going to the winner.

The idea is to draw superstars to come to work and want to stay, he said.

"I want people in for a job interview to think, ‘Wow, this is the best place to work in Gainesville,' ‘' he said. "The office space is part of that and the things we do for culture."

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