Fridae isn't just a prelude to the weekend. It's a cyber gateway to lavender living in the Asia-pacific. Yes, heterosexuals are welcome, too.
THE NAUGHTY advertisement for its member registration section reads: "Show us yours and we'll show you ours." Its chat service cheekily goads users to "let it all 'hang out'" while 'Bag Hags,' a recent feature article in the Sex & Living section of its online magazine, shortlists 10 items found in most gay men's totes.
These are but a small fraction of the astounding amount of information and services found on Fridae.com, a portal website that links up the gay and lesbian communities in Asia-Pacific as one gargantuan network where there was none before. And not surprisingly, the best people to fill this niche are the insiders.
"We recognized that the large gay community in Asia was poorly served, either by the corporate world or themselves," says 28-year-old COO Stuart Koe, a certified pharmacist who founded Fridae with fellow Singaporean Robert Yeoh, 46. Previously, Koe worked for the Economic Development Board, where he joined forces with pharmaceutical companies to promote Singapore as an investment base, while Yeoh paid his dues as an investment banker.
Slyly skirting a legal showdown with the Singapore Broadcasting Authority on web content issues, Koe and Yeoh set up base in Hong Kong, with development teams there, and in Singapore and Australia. As its anonymity has made the Internet the pet media channels of gays and lesbians the world over - an argument that holds ever truer in Asia where gay visibility is discouraged - the resourceful duo knew they were on to something promising. Then, they decided on the moniker, essentially a spin on Friday, as in Robinson Crusoe's, erm, helpmate.
The business plan was formed and fund-raising kicked off barely three months after the idea surfaced in March last year. (At press time, US$1.5 million had poured in from individual investors, of which an astonishing 90 per cent are not gay.). The workforce was gathered in July, and by March 2001, Fridae was a full-pledged operation. To coincide with the milestone, the site served as a principal sponsor and the official web portal of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.
The region's answer to America's gay.com and PlanetOut, and the United Kingdom's Rainbownetwork, Fridae began as a content-driven site when it soft-launched late last year. Koe and Yeoh then held a series of focus groups in the SAR and Singapore, and discovered that the masses preferred a balance of content and community-based services (such as free email accounts).
The subsequent reconstruction drew applause. "Users feel (that Fridae) is fresh and clean, yet approachable; not too design-oriented (such that) there is no content nor functionality," says Koe. " I like the fact that the site is not gender-biased. It is a convenient and well put-together source of gay-related issues that would interest many, not just gays and lesbians," enthuses Jason Coates, editor of Cream, a lifestyle magazine in Singapore. For the record, Fridae's coverage spans the likes of cosmic connections between cats and lesbians to the legal rights of minorities.
Says CEO Yeoh, "The key challenges (in setting up Fridae) are those common in any start-up. What's important is the ability to be sensitive to your users, and to see how we can improve the site quickly to meet their requirements while keeping to our objectives."
New additions include an automated events calendar, a finance column, bulletin boards linked to user profiles, while the Korean, Thai, Malay, simplified and traditional Chinese versions are scheduled for uploading this month. This development has tremendous implications in terms of opening up new markets.
"It took three months to register our first 5,000 users, and the first three weeks of June to register our next 5,000," reveals Koe. "We should be approaching (Rainbownetwork's) level of traffic, which is 2.5 million page views and 200,000 visitors a month, within three or four months. And that is only for our English website."
Unfazed by the economic downturn and a general loss of faith in the marketplace by investors and venture capitalists, Fridae thankfully boasts a remarkably low burn rate of S$40,000 per month. Not only do employees multitask, they pool their personal contacts in the region, which has seen an outpouring of voluntary contributions and content updates.
Besides, current online statistics pertaining to gay communities are apparently in Fridae's favor. According to a recent study conducted by American research firms, Witech-Combs Communications and Harris Interactive, gay e-commerce activity surpasses that of on-gay web users by a whopping 50 percent.
While US magazines The Advocate and Out reach less than one per cent of American's gay population, which is estimated to be between 13 and 29 million, gay.com and PlanetOut are receiving millions of visits each month. Hence, both sites command advertising rates that are 10 per cent to 20 per cent above normal online rates.
"Based on US- and UK-related research, it's clear that (the gay community) is a highly economically desirable group of people. (Fridae) enables traditional businesses to contact and connect with it, " says Yeoh. "They are very loyal when it comes to products and companies that target them specifically as a group."
Still, every rose has its thorns and the social stigma of homosexuality in Asia has yet to be fully clipped off. "It is still a very hidden community. Asia is 10 years behind the west," admits Koe. " But with the Net, the gap is narrowing fairly quickly. People are coming out at an earlier age."
Fridæ is not doubt one more reason why the closet door is getting harder to keep shut.