Finding God

Just when you thought there was nothing left to monetize, a new Internet upstart finds God.

Founded by two magazine veterans, Beliefnet.com offers news, discussion groups and other features that cater to a variety of faiths, from Bahaism to Zoroastrianism. The New York-based online magazine has assembled an impressive range of voices - including a seminary priest, a lama, a Hindu and a pagan priestess - to contribute articles on topics like the Internet's effect on a person's relationship with God and tactics for helping interfaith marriages thrive. [James Fallows, a contributing writer for The Standard, is also a Beliefnet columnist.] Steven Waldman, a former editor at U.S. News & World Report and cofounder of Beliefnet, says "God" is among the most popular keywords on most search engines. Despite growing interest in religious and spiritual issues, however, Waldman says the press gives the issue short shrift.

"The most important news event in most people's lives is not a presidential election," says Wald. "It's the birth of a child or the death of a parent." It is events like these that for many bear some degree of religious significance.

To that end, Beliefnet lets visitors memorialize major life events online. They can build Web shrines to dead loved ones, or celebrate weddings, bar mitzvahs and births with videos, pictures and a guest book for others to share their memories.

Cofounder Robert Nylen, the founding chief executive of the New England Monthly, says the startup will sell religious books and music in the next month. Eventually, he says, Beliefnet will sell herbs and other holistic health items, and arrange pilgrimages to religious destinations such as Jerusalem and Rome.

Nylen pegs the market for such goods and services at $40 billion. "There has always been a wonderful symbiosis between making a buck and doing the Lord's work," he says.

Beliefnet may need more than faith to make it in the e-commerce market, though.

Whereas affinity sites like women's portal iVillage and teen site Bolt.com target easily defined groups, Beliefnet is going after an audience with a huge range of religions and creeds.

Even if Beliefnet jumps that hurdle, iVillage's experience illustrates how hard it is to make money by offering content and message boards, even when a site attracts a high number of visitors. Because of investor wariness over mounting losses, iVillage's stock price has languished. Last week shares hovered around $20, compared to a first-day close of $80.13.

But Beliefnet leaders say the time is ripe for an online magazine to explore religion. According to company data, 60 percent of U.S. marriages are interfaith, while 88 percent of people say they pray and 76 percent take spirituality seriously. During his tenure at U.S. News, Waldman says, sales of his magazine and those of competitors spiked whenever their covers featured religious or moral themes.

In fact, Waldman and Nylen were in the process of founding a print magazine about religion when they caught wind of a similar online project being incubated by Boston-based Highland Venture Partners. Highland eventually convinced the duo, who were having trouble raising capital to launch their magazine, to come on board.

Highland, a lead investor in a number of successful startups including Ask Jeeves, MapQuest and eToys, declines to say how much it has put into Beliefnet.

A person familiar with the deal, however, says the amount is more than $5 million.

"The demand is out there," says Highland partner Jo Tango, referring to the market for religious items and travel. "It's a very fragmented supply chain, and there are no distributors in the middle. That to me smells like a great opportunity."

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