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Robin Liss: Telling the Truth About Technology

by Jenny Halper

Robin Liss
University: Tufts
Majors: Political Science with a Minor in Business
Grad Year: 2006

Company: Reviewed.com (Camcorder info, Digitalcamerainfo.com, Wirelessinfo.com)
Title: CEO of Reviewed.com, publisher of WirelessInfo.com, and CEO and founder of CamcorderInfo.com and DigitalCameraInfo.com
Industry: Electronics/Consumer Reports
Year founded: 2003/2004
Type of company: Consumer/Electronics
Location: Boston/New York
Number of employees: 22
Website: www.Reviewed.com


You know that camcorder you bought last year, a five-hundred-dollar deal that promised top quality but filmed nothing in the dark? Or the digital camera with a faulty zoom lense despite "above average" ratings from, say, Electronics Expert Magazine? Ethics are not the main concern of reviewers whose editorial edges have been greased by gifts and advertising millions. But when Robin Liss posted her first camcorder review online ten years ago at the age of twelve, she opted for tough honesty.

"I'm not going to say a product is good if it sucks."

Robin, who graduated from Tufts last May, now serves as the CEO of Reviewed.com, a company responsible for three profitable - and unusually honest - websites: camcorderinfo.com, digitalcamerainfo.com, and wirelessinfo.com.

The Evolution of a Hobby

While most recent college grads are eking out a living at Starbucks and living with their parents, Robin is running her website on the road. Since graduation, Reviewed.com has grown from a thriving three-year-old company to a true business, with offices in Davis Square and Times Square and twenty two employees. Robin is the youngest of them.

"I'm not going to say a product is good if it sucks."

"I was planning an expansion while I was in college," Robin explains over the phone, in between back-to-back meetings. She spends one third of her time in Boston, one third of her time in New York City, and one third of her time traveling, blackberry and lap top in tow.

"Because we're in the information business, we have to go where the story is," she says.

Recently, the story has been Robin. As a child she "wanted to change the world and improve people's lives," and providing consumers with honest reviews was something she "stumbled upon" when she realized web surfers were reading the articles she posted on the original site, "Robin's Reviews." Supported by her father, a vet of the nonprofit world who "has no formal role in the company but a huge informal one," Robin just kept writing.

Her site gained popularity while she was in high school, and starting pulling in advertising money while she was an undergrad. It was then that the accidental entrepreneur realized she had more than a hobby. Her skyrocketing success has been documented by the likes of CNN and the Boston Globe.

"I realize it's not as altruistic as running a soup kitchen," says Robin, "but for a student filmmaker who made ten thousand dollars last year and wants to make their movie, a camcorder is a pretty important purchase."

Forging the Business Barrier

Robin's Political Science degree has already come in handy - she spent a summer working for John Kerry's campaign and hints at possible political aspirations down the line. But it was her undergraduate minor - Business - that gave her the terminology to "talk to other CEO's, to play in the big leagues."

"People with degrees - law, medicine, business, finance - have created a language that creates an information barrier for most people," says Robin, who found that a seemingly tricky task - overseeing Reviewed.com's finances - was surprisingly simple.

"A lot of people are intimidated by finances, and once I figured it out it hasn't been that difficult."

"A lot of people are intimidated by finances, and once I figured it out it hasn't been that difficult. You need to make sure you're bringing money in and sending money out."

"I just made a company that works financially - I didn't know what I was doing," she adds. "I knew in my gut that we were a publication that should subscribe to the same rules that have governed journalists for years. We might not be interviewing presidential candidates, but it was important to put the consumer first."

Hence the ethics creed, which Robin says "is central to our business." She cites developing trust with readers as "the most important thing we do." Her editors are prohibited from taking gifts from manufacturers ("that disgusts me"), and the advertising department is kept distinctly separate from the editorial department to create an environment that focuses on "the merits of the product alone."

To gauge quality, Robin works with "a variety of PhDs and engineers who help us really break performance down," using software to analyze, for instance, the video quality of camcorders and the image quality of digital cameras.

"A bad review is just as helpful - if not more - than a positive one," Robin says. "Our analytical look appeals to people. Companies don't have a choice but to deal with us, despite our negativity."

A Blessing and a Curse

In addition to detailed reviews, Robin's websites rank products in easy-to-read charts that decipher smart purchases from not-so-smart ones. But while blunt honesty has been instrumental in Reviewed.com's popularity, it isn't necessarily something an established company could pull off.

"I had nothing to lose, so I took a lot of risks," Robin says. "Our business succeeded because it was quick and nimble - we were willing to do things that bigger businesses wouldn't have been able to do."

And while Robin didn't run up against any discouragement (except for the occasional angry phone call from a camcorder manufacturer) she has found that working full time as CEO has been a blessing and a curse.

"I had nothing to lose, so I took a lot of risks," Robin says. "Our business succeeded because it was quick and nimble - we were willing to do things that bigger businesses wouldn't have been able to do."

"(In school) I had nothing to lose," she says. "I still don't have a family to support, but I do have twenty two people who are dependent on this company, and the health insurance we provide, and the resources we provide. The stakes are higher."

The hardest part of wearing the "many hats" of a CEO has been "making sure my employees have all the resources they need to do their jobs well, and making decisions that allow my great staff to do what they need to do without hurting the company financially."

Since the expansion that followed Robin's college graduation, she is "taking much more of a strategic planning role. We get to do a lot more, but the decisions I make carry a lot more weight now. Before, my time was limited, and my staff was limited. We can be more ambitious, but we've got to make the right decisions."

Any advice for the aspiring entrepreneur?

"I just took an opportunity," Robin says. "The worst thing you can do is fail. Start it as a hobby, don't hire ten people on day one. Just try it."
Reviewed.com
 
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