Walter Gross is Chief Executive Officer of The Technomax Group, an on-line company focused on helping small business owners integrate their corporate identity with the Internet and the World Wide Web. But you may know Wally better as the creator and guardian of the prestigious and world-renowned Surfers Choice Internet Awards, a long-standing and top-rated bastion of the search for web excellence. From his offices in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada Wally oversees a number of successful internet properties including Technomax. If you don't mind hearing from a 53 year old guy that still leaves warm milk and oatmeal cookies for Santa, please stick around. This interview was conducted in early March 2000.
This is your friendly interviewer, Jeff Clark, as he appeared in 1999. Time changes things.
[Internet Brothers] Wally welcome. We're delighted to have you join us. Surfers Choice Internet Awards is one of the originals, having been around since 1995. Would you take our readers through its history and evolution?
[Wally Gross] Sure, but how about some milk and cookies first! My first on-line experience came with Compuserve way back in 1992. At US$3.50 an hour, believe me when I tell you that one carefully monitored one's surfing time. Of course there wasn't that much to see, other than mountains of shareware, but I had the feeling this thing just might have an influence on the way we communicate.
It wasn't too long thereafter that Compuserve came along with this whole new deal — or at least they introduced us to it — called the World Wide Web. Unimaginable stuff; graphics and information all made visible via this new medium with a few simple tags called HTML and a few protocols that made it all possible. Now for our $2.95 an hour (a welcome price drop) we were given 2 MB of server space to post our thoughts on-line for the world to see. All you needed was a copy of Mosaic and you could browse forever — and I did. Monthly bills of $200 plus were pretty much the norm. Heck that's about what I make a week now.
So in 1993 I had my first web site on-line — a downright pioneer folks! The one-and-only Mississauga Realtor with a Home Page. Smoking guns. My home town's first Geek Realtor. Needless to say there wasn't a wide spectrum of marketing available at that time in comparison to what's out there now. If my memory serves me well, I recall Yahoo! (some said, when they go public buy in as soon as you can. Did I? Nope!), Postmaster had about 50 places to submit a site and there were a few award sites. The most illustrious of the latter was the Top 5% award.
I lost track of the number of times I submitted for the Top 5% — never won it though. I guess they must have been tired of hearing from me, a splendid touch of irony, I must say. Naturally I was a neophyte and in spite of my best efforts, my web site was average at best. Not winning that award turned out to be the catalyst that turned into Surfers Choice awards. Heck, I said: "If I can't win one, I'll give 'em out."
To the best of my feeble recollection, it was early on in 1995 when I was watching the People's Choice Awards, the idea of Surfers Choice Internet Award was born. Just about a week or two later I had the site on-line as a sub-directory of my ISP, Trigger Internet Solutions, a small service oriented local provider. It didn't take long for 100 plus award requests to start coming in on a daily basis. It was more a function of the lack of supply of similar sites and a high demand for the service, than it was a reflection of the site itself. So, it all started as a fun hobby really. However, this site has been the true teacher of what I have come to know about the Net and the Web.
[IB] During your nearly five year run, thousands of Web award programs have come and gone. What do you think has given Surfers Choice its staying power and stamina?
[WG] If by staying power and stamina you mean longevity, then I would list these four factors: commitment, communication, change and sacrifice. Surfers Choice really started as a hobby site — it was just something I wanted to do for the experience and the fun. Thousands, if not millions, of sites started just for these identical reasons and motivations.
One individual attempting to review 100+ applications a day is more than a formidable task — it borders on some form of outright insanity. Nevertheless, I made the sacrifices in terms of time to get the work done. Many long nights spent for no other reason than living up to my commitments to these people who took the time to apply. My simple innate characteristic to never be a quitter is a prime factor for any success I have enjoyed in life and in business. People appreciate that I believe, and it has a way of being noticed even if one is as humble as can be.
After a period of maybe 10 months or so of doing this, I soon realized that one cannot please all (at least not without developing serious anxiety problems), and I embarked upon a journey of change. As any Webmaster who runs an award site, or a site that does reviews knows, submitters don't always use their reading skills. This results in volumes of unqualified submissions and hours upon hours of wasted time. Change was imminent and necessary. It is never easy to implement tough rules, but making them in a scenario as vast as the Web is sometimes a choice that is without alternatives.
“Communication is a factor in both the personal and business facets of our lives. At the core of it all are people.” — Wally Gross
[WG] Most unqualified submissions came from free hosting services. I had little choice but to simply ban these individuals. There is no pleasure in taking such a hard stance, but being tough is sometimes the one and only way. I was, and am, not alone in this stance. Just visit some of the major search engines and other sites of this ilk and you may just notice that similar rules are in place. These people brought this onto themselves by simply refusing to behave in a decent manner. Naturally, when one makes such a limiting rule it drags innocent people into the mix — those that display common decency and good graces. This is truly tragic but unavoidable. Thankfully many of these people soon develop a presence that removes the shackles of free.
Along with this, our submission standards continually evolved with the changes of the web itself. Soon these will once again be amended. So change is an important factor. We cannot be timid about it; it is one of those little necessities of our times. As we so aptly say, "Nothing stays the same, but change."
Communication is a penultimate factor in both the personal and business facets of our lives. At the core of it all are people. Our people skills are still preeminent. There is a need within all of us for recognition, appreciation and acknowledgment. As ye sow, so shall ye reap is profoundly true. I have done my utmost to pay attention to people and make them feel welcome and appreciated. This above all else is the single most important factor in developing relationships of any kind. If I was asked to give up all of the skills I have learned over my life time and keep only one, I would choose my people skills. They have served me well and have come at the expense of experience, study and dedication.
[IB] Surfers Choice is your creation, but along the way you've had some help. Most major internet award sites can't survive the workload these days without teams of volunteer reviewers and judges. Who are some of the individuals that have helped to make Surfers Choice the tremendous success that it is? They deserve a pat on the back.
Take your pat on the back Jeff (and bro) because I have great respect for your talents and your enormous contribution to this vast medium. You have been kind and generous to us and many others. This I appreciate immensely. The first person that came along and volunteered her services was Kimberly Warzelhan, a mid-west American gal who was living in Germany at the time. She applied for one of our awards and received another with a somewhat lower ranking. This greatly agonized her, and being a spunky gal, she let her feelings be known.
Well, after some terse words and a tough stance on my part, I think she developed some respect and perhaps felt she had met up with a kindred spirit in me. After some changes, the top award was bestowed upon her, and rightly so. She then became very much involved in reviewing sites and did a marvelous job of it. Kimberly did so much to help us. I think she is, and always will be, a part of Surfers Choice. In fact, I just talked with her last week as we reminisced about the good old days. She is well known as the FrogFrau.
Jim Wilson of VirtualPromote also did a great deal to help Surfers Choice back in the early days, and still to these more recent times. Jim might be the only other person I know who is busier than I am. He has done volumes to make the Web a better place. Jeff Whyle of HawkFan.com has been helping me now for about 8 months and is another dedicated and likeable person that I am elated to have in my association. David Bancroft of the illustrious Award Sites has been a great help to us and indeed the whole internet awards community. We are grateful for all he does. Don Chisholm, who lives near me and has become a close friend, is another one of those dedicated people who spends his spare time helping others on the Web. His highly acclaimed site Website Awards is one of the quintessential stops along the i-Way for the awards community. His deep commitment to helping people is something I greatly respect. Dennis VanderWorp of Computer Magic is another kind and gentle human being who I am most fortunate to have as a friend.
There have been so many fine individuals along the way I simply can't list them all here. Take a trip to Surfers Choice Internet Awards and you'll see them mentioned in various places. These are the people that got into the trenches with me and that is something special indeed. Bless them all.
Proceed to part 2 of Internet Brothers interview with Wally Gross.