Last month, at a typically cerebral, Harvard-sponsored Internet conference, David Ellington of San Francisco-based NetNoir stood out as one of the few executives from the for-profit side of the Internet. “When I was in college I was a Marxist,” Ellington, the president and chief executive officer of the community Web site targeted toward blacks, told the digerati during a panel. “Then my mother stopped paying the bills. I became a capitalist.”
The birth of NetNoir dates back to the early ’90s and was the result of a mutually beneficial relationship. Ellington, now 38, was an entertainment lawyer living in Los Angeles when he met Malcolm CasSelle, then a graduate student in computer science at Stanford University. Fueled by Ellington’s access to celebrity parties and CasSelle’s tutelage in the digital world, the two became friends and eventually business partners. After spending time at Stanford, an enlightened Ellington returned to Hollywood as one of its early new media prophets.
In the spirit of radical thinkers, Ellington saw the future not in the conventional wisdom of the day, which centered around CD-ROMs, but in online communities–specifically an online community for blacks. “I was frustrated by entertainment law,” Ellington says. “Artists got ripped off because they didn’t own distribution.
“Black people don’t own distribution for anything,” he adds. “Without distribution you don’t make money. I wanted to focus on the distribution side. The Internet was unlimited distribution.”
The year was 1994, and America Online was funding what it called “infopreneurs” like Ellington through its now-defunct Greenhouse division. In June 1995, Ellington and CasSelle, who is now NetNoir’s senior vice president, launched the service both on AOL and on the Web. At launch, NetNoir got plenty of press from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal; Fortune named NetNoir to its annual list of coolest companies.
Today, Ellington’s biggest concerns are forging strategic partnerships and finance deals for NetNoir. His law degree, from Georgetown, gave him the skills to cut deals, and he has amassed quite a resumƒ, including advertiser relationships with IBM, Charles Schwab, Procter & Gamble, Starbucks and Bank of America.
As one of the few black-oriented properties online, Ellington was able to capitalize on the media frenzy for a targeted minority site. “It was absolutely absurd,” Ellington says of his 3-year-old venture. “And we were able to ride it.”