Abigail Edwards, Intern, interviews Co-Op Web CEO Ana Lewis, who is celebrating her company’s 20th anniversary. From how it all started to where it’s going, Ms. Lewis speaks candidly about how her company reached this milestone, and what lies ahead.
AE: How did you first become interested in this business?
AL: I was a dancewear designer for many years prior to my work on the internet. Initially, as a non-computer user (or even owner), in 1994, I was curious. What on earth was this thing called the internet? What’s a website? I was fascinated. I started working with a friend of mine who owned a video apartment rental agency, designing and marketing his website, and learning new things every day. One day, I called our Internet Service Provider (ISP) and asked if I could tour the facility.
As I walked into the bank of servers and saw the pride and joy of these young, brilliant men and all that they were accomplishing and learning, I wanted so badly to be a part of that energy. When we toured their beautiful offices overlooking the city, I exclaimed, “I could SO work here!” I wasn’t there for a job, but when I said that, they told me that they could SO bring me on board. They told me that they could teach me the technology, but they couldn’t teach me how to design, so if I bring my eye, they would teach me how the internet works.
I spent four years training at an ISP. That first one was sold (yep, brilliant young dudes did well), and then I went to another ISP about a block away and ran an even bigger web department. That job ended with the owners going into the big-time moneymaking internet porn industry, so I decided to go off on my own.
AE: Why the name Co-Op Web?
AL: When I started Co-Op Web, I had cohorts who were programmers in the second web department I ran at the ISP. We KNEW we could direct traffic to a website, so considered the concept that we would build websites for free, but get a piece of the traffic. That worked out very well financially for us until 9/11. Most of our clients were in the resort industry; many people stopped traveling after that time (especially to international destinations), and we had to re-evaluate our business model.
Since then, we’ve found that when we “cooperate” with marketing firms, we do our best work. We are part of a team. One piece of the whole pie. We bring the brand message to the masses digitally, and keep the message consistent. Thus, keeping that ideal of cooperating that has worked for us.
AE: Was it easy when you were starting out?
AL: When I started in the internet, it was super exciting to me. I learned something new every single day. When I decided to start Co-Op Web in 1998, it was a little bit scary, but I turned down several job offers in order to make it happen. I believed in the industry and the people I worked with, and also in myself. I was a single mom raising three children at the time, so I was very inspired to make it work.
AE: Was it easier than it is now?
AL: No, it’s much easier now. I am surrounded by a great team of women, and I am not alone. When I first started the business, I spent most of the first year working alone. The Co-Op Web team inspires me every day.
AE: What did you appreciate the most about the market environment back then?
AL: So many things used to be free or low cost. Domain registrations were free, hosting, internet connection and Web services were inexpensive. No one owns the internet, so initially, this leveled the playing field in a way that is not as balanced today. I appreciated that a small company could be on the same playing field as a major corporation in the 1990s. Internet advertising and the ability to be able to afford to implement higher security measures on your site has changed that environment.
AE: If you could give your past self any advice about the business, what would it be?
AL: It would be the same thing that I say to myself now. Relax! Go with the flow. It’s all going to be the way it’s supposed to be and it’s all going to be okay.
AE: What’s changed the most about the company over the years?
AL: The Company has evolved into being a fantastic team. I was lonely before, and that was one of the reasons I started Women on the Verge in 2009. Now I work with sisters every day and I am grateful for that change and growth.
AE: Was it your intention to be fully female owned and operated?
AL: Honestly, when I started there were very few women in the industry. I made friends online with other geeky women; in fact, Dena, who is on our staff, was one of the first I met at an online women-in-tech community called Pleiades. Pleiades no longer exists, but I still communicate with many of the women from there and also had some as clients through the years. But I am rambling…
I don’t think it was truly an ambition to be all women, as for years Jim Pietrangelo worked with me, and I love and trust him and his wife immensely. But, currently, being an all-women staff, I am super grateful and proud. I hope to bring us more work and continue to hire more women. That would be fantastic!
AE: What’s something that you’re still working to change?
AL: I believe that social media can be an important key to inclusivity on a global basis. We are all connected, and the internet is a physical manifestation of that connection. Social media gets a bad rap, but I prefer to view it as a platform in which there is room for everyone.
AE: What are a few of the company’s long-term goals?
AL: Hah! You’re making me bust out my business plan. I will quote our Vision, Values and Mission:
Co-Op Web will be the nationally recognized expert in developing inclusive social media communities that meet and respond to the unique needs of each client.
Co-Op Web is dedicated to the following values:
- Using the internet to form positive, healthy, and supportive relationships
- Establishing working relations based on trust, respect, and integrity
- Working collaboratively to enable success for all
The mission of Co-Op Web is to provide businesses with custom-tailored social media solutions based upon state of the art technologies and providing superior customer support in order to ensure each client’s needs are fulfilled. Every online community will foster an inclusive spirit based on community, relationships, humor, and friendliness.
AE: How much would you say the goals have changed since you started?
AE: What’s a memory with the company you can look back on and laugh about?
AL: Even though we were successful building free websites and gaining income from the traffic we could generate, we didn’t think through the worst-case scenarios, such as when an online customer makes a return or is upset with the service they received. We don’t do that any more, and I am happier with a simpler version of that original platform. Now we simply get paid for what we do. Period.
AE: What is one of the best ways the company has helped its customers?
AL: Each one of our clients is our favorite. Just like children. We love them each for different reasons, in their own way. I think the fact that we are honest, we work with integrity and work very hard for our clients, it shows. Higher traffic, improved brand awareness and community building are our goals, and we have successfully accomplished that on a daily basis. We conduct monthly reports that document our success in this endeavor, so it’s not just me blabbing and bragging.
AE: What is one of the best things the company has changed in your life?
AL: I keep learning every day and am inspired to continue to grow and learn. Working in technology and in a community environment, even if everyone is working remotely (which we all are), we are still connected. This would never have been possible in earlier times.
AE: What motivates you to keep the company going?
AL: The easiest question of all. The people. It’s always the people. Our team, our clients, the marketing companies we have collaborated with—all the reasons we keep the wheels rolling.
AE: Is this something you’d like to do for the rest of your life?
AL: Haha! I am old enough to say, uh, yeah. This is what I do. I like to think that I will grow with the industry. Continue learning, growing and seeing what makes me take a second look. Right now I feel there are some exciting things regarding AI, 3D printing, automated cars, space travel and so much more. What we call “globally” now will seem limited in the future. To quote Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The sky is not the limit.”
AE: What else would you like the public to know about Co-Op Web?
AL: I want the public to know that we try our best to represent our clients online in a supportive, community-building and inclusive manner. We walk our talk. We are kind of the “goody two shoes” of social media. We don’t make snarky responses, and we aren’t about the clever comebacks. We are about community and support, both behind closed doors and in the vast global environment called the internet.