The risks of running an ethical business

My Web site's tough product reviews anger some advertisers but win reader trust - and revenue - over time.

by Robin Liss, FSB Magazine

(FSB Magazine) -- Running a Web site that publishes reviews of camcorders sounds like a tame line of work. But I had a moment of terror when an executive at a major electronics manufacturer accused me of hacking into the corporation's computer system to get information about a new product.

My site, CamcorderInfo.com, evaluates equipment for consumers. I started it five years ago as a senior in high school. While I attended Tufts University, my team and I built it to 20,000 visitors a day. Our major selling point is our reputation. Some reviewers in this field have damaged their credibility through cozy relationships with big manufacturers. We maintain our independence - and publicize it.

The executive's accusation came after I published an advance look at one of his firm's camcorders. I had found pictures and specs on the company's Web site. He claimed that the review, which I considered to be neutral, had forced his employer to release a rudimentary version of the product early and damaged sales. He threatened to call the FBI to prosecute me if I didn't reveal information about an anonymous source at the firm whom I had interviewed.

After consulting with several lawyers to make sure I was on solid ground, I told the executive that I would not answer questions about the source. I didn't want to compromise our reporting because I was being bullied. It was a tough call.

His firm had recently offered to buy nearly $1,000 worth of advertising on my site, which earns all of its revenue from ads. I knew I would lose the deal - and I did. CamcorderInfo.com was five years old at that point and had only 5,000 page views a day. The advertising would have put money we needed in our coffers. I waited for the FBI to come and get me, but agents never knocked on my door. Shoppers showed up at CamcorderInfo. com, though, and Howard Kurtz later recognized us on CNN's Reliable Sources program.

Our ethics policy has become a major selling point, and we publish it alongside all our reviews. Although some technology reviewers accept camcorders worth as much as $2,000 from manufacturers for evaluation, we do not let our contributors keep any equipment. We either buy the gadgets, borrow and return them, or donate them to charity. We also pay our own way to conventions and manufacturers' headquarters. This may mean turning down overseas trips worth as much as $20,000. And although we accept advertising from electronics makers, we practice the same separation of church and state that major publications do.

Three-quarters of our visitors are new to the site, and we want them to trust us - and come back. Many do. Our company, Reviewed.com, has grown so fast that we have expanded our services to still digital cameras, starting an offshoot called DigitalCameraInfo.com in 2003.

To my enormous surprise, the company that threatened to call the feds on me made another offer to advertise on CamcorderInfo.com. Because of our popularity - we have the No. 1 search listing on Google (Charts) under "camcorder reviews" - it couldn't afford to avoid us anymore. I okayed the deal, comfortable that the electronics firm was aware of our ethics policies. It has since become one of our largest clients. When I asked the executive if he ever actually called the FBI on me, he insists he did. He said the agency found me guilty of nothing except a passion to build a reliable company.

As a business owner, you pride yourself on giving good customer service. What experiences have you had - whether with a hotel, restaurant, airline, supplier or service provider (cable, phone, insurance, car dealer) - that has either delighted you or made you mad? Let us know what your experiences have been by writing to us (please include your contact information and your business's name and city) at fsb_mail@timeinc.com.

Owner's Manual is written by entrepreneurs about lessons they have learned. Contact Robin Liss at robin@camcorderinfo.com. Please send feedback to fsb_mail@timeinc.com.

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.