Local Web Sites Offer Connections

June 23, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Two Grand Rapids-based Web sites have recently been gaining ground. MilitaryAvenue.com and TheCommon.org both connect people to information that meets their needs — but in very different ways.

MilitaryAvenue.com was created to facilitate the relocation process for military families in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The Web site was created around the Kissinger family’s dining room table. Retired Colonel Dale Kissinger spent 30 years flying for the U.S. Air Force, which translated into 18 moves to various military bases for his family.

“What we’re trying to do is support the military families during their relocation, their lifestyle challenges,” said Kissinger.

“We’ve never lived in the same place twice. When you relocate a military family, you’ve got to find a vet for your pets; you’ve got to find a place to live, a place to worship.”

MilitaryAvenue.com now includes more than 100 business categories, 240 “installations” (bases), and 6,100 partners offering military discounts. The Web site gives free advertising space to any “partner” willing to offer military discounts. It gains revenue when those partners choose to upgrade their ads, and through national sponsorship.

A “reading room” is included on the site.

“A reading room is where people can go in and find current up-to-date articles on their current issues, and they match the categories too,” said Kissinger.

“If I select ‘Apartments’ on the right side of the site, there will be a list of current articles about renting an apartment, information from the (Department of Defense) on how much housing funding they’ll receive in that area. We try to provide a one-stop shop and such for everybody that’s looking for information from a long distance, which is normal military style.”

The site also provides a blog from a military family perspective that addresses issues a typical military family might encounter. Recently, the site joined the Department of Defense’s America Supports You program, which focuses on citizens’ support for members of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.

“There’s 40 corporations supporting that effort and we’re one of them,” said Kissinger. “It’s assistance to military families; it provides resources for them and provides an opportunity for military families to feel like they’re appreciated — and that’s kind of our gut feeling too.”

TheCommon.org connects people in a different way. The site was established approximately 13 months ago by Ben Gott, founder of indistr.com — a site that allows independent musicians to sell their own music online — and Rick DeVos, grandson of Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. The two later brought in Kyle Zwiep as director of marketing and operations.

TheCommon.org connects people who are part of an existing community by matching their needs and abilities — with a strong emphasis on security.

“We’re not a social networking site,” said Gott. “You can’t join TheCommon unless you’re joining under an existing community that’s using TheCommon.”

Mars Hill Bible Church was one of the first organizations to join the site. Anyone who is connected with Mars Hill is eligible to join under the church’s community. However, joining cannot be done solely online. A potential member must attend an “in-person sign-up event,” and bring a photo I.D.

“The Web is making things 20 times easier than they’re supposed to be, and signing up in person sounds difficult,” said Gott. “But due to the nature of what’s happening on here — this is real stuff. We’ve got people who are going through chemotherapy that need meals prepared for them, or their dogs walked, or something like that. People are entering other people’s homes, people are connecting; there’s some emotional things going on, so we really wanted to make sure that anyone who’s on the site — they have a real picture that’s taken of them that has to be approved by the administration of the community using it, and all the information entered is the same as it is on their driver’s license or their passport or something like that.”

To add to the security of the site, searching for information about other users is not available.

“We don’t divulge address information, phone number … or even e-mail,” said Gott. “You have to post your need and see what the community does.”

There is no money exchanged on the Web site, only a transfer of services and goods. The site creates revenue from a unique model that is based on use.

“We generate our revenue off of profile usage,” said Zwiep. “When a new community signs up, they get their first month of usage on TheCommon for free, as does a user. … Then following that, if they log-in and interact with the site during anytime in the course of a given month, they then become an active user, which means they are liable for charges, and the charge is one dollar per month for an active user.”

Each user is presented with the option to pay their own dollar; otherwise, the payment falls to the community to which the member belongs.

The site also offers some features for free, such as e-mail alerts that allow users to know what is happening on the site. 

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