Type "camcorder" or "camcorder reviews" into Google, and the top result is www.camcorderinfo.com. The website attracts more than 400,000 unique visitors per month. But few readers of the most popular site for information on buying video camcorders suspect that the sole owner and CEO is a 21-year-old college student.
Robin Liss, a senior at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., a Boston suburb, started reviewing video camcorders online nine years ago when she was 12. Today the company she founded and runs has 11 full-time employees, a second site that reviews digital cameras, and ambitious plans to expand later this year into reviewing other digital gadgets such as cellphones and computer printers.
In the meantime, Ms. Liss has a little unfinished business. Before she can graduate from Tufts this spring, the political science major has to finish an 80-page honors thesis on how city governments collaborate with nonprofit groups.
Despite her two roles, she even finds time for some college student play, spending last week's spring break on a Caribbean cruise with two-dozen sorority sisters. But that was quickly followed by a weekend cross-country business trip to Los Angeles to consult with a business partner and a speedy return for classes Monday. "I think I sacrifice sleep more than anything," she says with a smile.
While her age and gender make her unusual - the electronics industry is dominated by men with advanced engineering degrees - they aren't the only things. For example, though she's a successful entrepreneur, she says her real goal in life is to serve in government. And though she's a successful businesswoman, she thinks of her website more as a news source than as a moneymaker.
"If you ask me what business I'm in, I'll tell you I'm in publishing," Liss says. "Doing the best, most standardized, most fair reviews possible is our No. 1 concentration." Her reputation has grown to the point that reviewers at The New York Times and USA Today have sought out her help in assessing new camcorders. On top of that, she makes frequent appearances on CNN television as a general electronic gadget guru.
While Liss and her team of online reviewers are proud of how tough they can be, "no one has ever accused us of being unfair," she says.
She has had to deal with manufacturers who were less than pleased. The head of the camcorder division at a major company once called her and "yelled at me for an hour about a review," Liss says. "He said, 'If I read this review, I'd think you didn't want anybody to buy this product.' [I said,] 'Well, you're absolutely right, I think it's a bad product.' "
On Liss's sites, each camera or camcorder is graded using more than 40 standard criteria. And each undergoes several unbiased technical tests, such as measuring the camera's ability to function in a low-light situation.
Her websites have an "ethics page" explaining that reviewers do not sell advertising or take gifts or free travel offers from manufacturers.
Unfortunately, that standard is not yet common at online sites. The "church and state" separation between advertising and reporting that most newspapers and many magazines adhere to isn't there, she says.
Manufacturers offer reviewers gifts like a free trip to Japan "with five-star accommodations," she says. On the other end of the equation, websites might let the same person who sells ads to manufacturers review their products. "You know - wink, wink, nudge, nudge," she says. At some sites, she notes wryly, the lowest score any product ever receives is "above average."
Liss started playing with camcorders as a child in Kalamazoo, Mich., and soon was putting her reviews online. In high school, she made "my first movie" on a camcorder, a video she called "Planet of the Moles" that used puppets to tell the story.
As her website began to make money (from the sale of related ads), she got her first rude awakening to the world of business. "The original name of the website was videomakerinfo.com," she recalls, "and I got a nice little 'cease and desist' letter from a magazine called 'Videomaker,' " which insisted she stop using that name.
As the renamed camcorderinfo.com site picked up more and more visitors, camcorder companies started to pay attention. Eventually, they started loaning her cameras to review, "which I thought was pretty cool," she says. By the time she entered college at Tufts, she had already scored her first "scoop," breaking news about a new model under development.
The manufacturer wanted to know who had given her the information, but she refused to reveal her sources. "That's when I woke up and realized we were pretty influential," she says.
In general, she says, her youth hasn't posed too many business challenges, except when she was still a minor and her father had to sign legal documents for her. Her gender, though, has presented a few speed bumps.
In digital still cameras, "it's a men's game," she says. "It's kind of a good-old-boys' club. It's tough to break in." But because video camcorders are often purchased and used by wives and mothers, more women are in that field. For example, Sony's director of camcorder products is a woman, she says.
Though a next logical business step might be to sell part or all of her company to investors, Liss is eyeing that option warily. Investors would bring with them "a huge fear of compromising the editorial product," she says. Any new partners arrangement would have to leave her with full control, she says.
Long term, a career in government service, not private enterprise, is her goal, though she doesn't see herself running for office. After her freshman year, she took a semester off to work as a deputy press secretary for presidential candidate John Kerry in New Hampshire.
Any institution, even government, can benefit from what an entrepreneur can bring, Liss says. "What is entrepreneurship? It's taking an idea from a little seed to reality quickly."
People who know her say Liss has drive, and if that is harnessed to public policy work, "I expect big things from her," says Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts. Professor Berry and another Tufts professor plan to use research Liss conducted for her thesis as part of a paper they plan to publish in the future, giving her credit. Her honors thesis "is pretty sophisticated," he says. "It's much more than you would expect out of an undergraduate.
"Her energy is contagious," he adds. "I get tired just talking to her."
Berry won't be surprised if Liss ends up in government. "She has a deep interest in social justice," he says. "I think she finds the business world challenging, but there's something missing in it" for her.
Helping people buy camcorders might be looked upon by some as just "greasing the wheels of consumerism," Liss says. But she hopes it can be more. "I've been dealt this hand of camcorder reviews, and it's not, on its face, the most altruistic endeavor," she concedes.
"My passion is helping people, closing the gap between the haves and have-nots," she says. With her review sites, "I'm trying to close the gap between people who have information and those who don't ... the gap between the technologically knowledgeable and the technologically lost.
"I joke that profit is no fun.... What's fun is doing things that impact this world and make it a better place. And that's what I want to do."