- The Washington Times - Monday, December 27, 1999

And new companies are emerging to help owners bring their buildings into the computer age.One of those is ELink, a 1-year-old start-up established by a trio of entrepreneurs: Michael Sloan, 26, Jason Epstein, 26, and Marc Glosserman, 25. They do not have a background in technology or real estate, but they have been in business since college. Five years ago, The Washington Times wrote about how Mr. Sloan and Mr. Epstein and a third partner published a guide to local colleges for students.

With a background in providing service, they say they have the key needed to succeed in this high-tech business. ELink pays landlords to run fiber-optic trunk lines that branch off to offices throughout the buildings it wires. Then it sells Internet access to the tenants, with hopes of selling other computer services to their subscribers. The 39-employee firm now has 137 customers in 20 buildings but the race is just beginning.

Question: How did you get started? I hear you don't have any experience with fiber-optic cable or real estate?

Mr. Sloan: We've been entrepreneurs for life, publishing, that kind of stuff. We started six years ago, making a magazine in 1994. Jason and I, we helped start an Internet business. That's our background. Jason had the idea to wire apartment buildings. We adapted that to office buildings.

Mr. Epstein: The market was wide open in that space, and it's much easier to market and wire offices than residential buildings. We raised money, about $900,000 from 24 angel investors, many of them real estate investors, then a second tranche of $10 million.

Q: How many buildings have you wired?

Mr. Epstein: So far we've wired 20 buildings.

Mr. Sloan: Our success has been our ability to capture the most tenants in the buildings we've entered. We have nearly a 50 percent capture rate.

Q: When did you start?

Mr. Sloan: We wired our first on February 26. That was 1200 18th Street NW in the District. The Ring Building. Since then we have yet to lose a single customer.

Q: Well, it's a new market isn't it?

Mr. Glosserman: It's a new market, but we're selling data, Internet access. There's tons of competitors selling the same product.

Q: Who are your competitors?

Mr. Epstein: We have lots of different types of competitors. There's Allied Riser Communications and Broadband Office. In New York, there's Onsite Access. Cypress Communications. These building-centric companies, like ELink, are in essence extending the Internet backbone to its user. Winstar and Teligent, they're not real competitors but they're still selling the same end-user. There's UUNet and many other companies.

Q: How did you start?

Mr. Glosserman: When we came up with our concept, we raised money but it wasn't a lot. It made us focus on the execution part of the business, which was going out, on such a thin margin of error on our first few buildings, it made us focus on how do you capture a customer.

Q: How thin was this margin of error?

Mr. Glosserman: It was the seed investors. When we were raising money, they said you have a great concept, but you need to prove it. We knew that we were going to have a couple shots and a few buildings in which to do it, so we spent all our time honing and refining our model. So we were focused on how to capture a customer and two, how do you maintain that customer and foster that into other revenue opportunities.

Q: So the key is attracting customers?

Mr. Epstein: It's one: capturing the customer base and two, building franchise. That means connecting with the customer in such a way that they turn to you for other services. You lead with Internet access. You provide the best Internet access then follow up with service. Shower them with service, and through service, they trust you. And when something happens, when their network goes down, or they want to upgrade their network, or they want a new printer, they call us, they turn to the people they trust.

Mr. Glosserman: Kind of like Nordstrom's. They'll bend over backwards for you.

Mr. Epstein: We look at service as an investment.

Q: Is that because market share is important, like an Internet land grab?

Mr. Epstein: It's a land grab with the customers, but ultimately, if you're not servicing the customers, then you'll lose the customer and it's all for naught.

Q: Why don't big companies like Bell Atlantic and MCI do this? Why has the industry started off this way?

Mr. Sloan: They don't know how to market this way. Their way is to put up a television ad. It provides an opportunity for companies like us to set a standard for customer service.

Q: So where is the industry now?

Mr. Epstein: ELink and its competitors are racing in a first-mover market to wire buildings first. It's a no-brainer for a tenant… . Right now less than 1 percent of the buildings are wired but that's quickly changing.

Q: I'm thinking that it's like a utility. As long as you put water in a building, it doesn't matter what company is providing it, you get water.

Mr. Epstein: But tenants have choice. Tenants have choice.

Mr. Sloan: We don't just bring water into your suite. We link the water to all the different plumbing in your suite. And when you need a water filtration system, we can do that.

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