Colorado meteorologists work to monetize weather forecasts for winter athletes
March 5, 2013
Steamboat Springs — Mike Weissbluth calls it the "magic time." From 5 to 9 a.m. and near sunset, what looks like a typical storm can turn into heavy snowfall for Mount Werner and Steamboat Ski Area.
Anecdotal evidence supports the occurrence of magic times, Weissbluth said, but the cause is hard to pin down.
But that's just the nature of weather forecasting in Steamboat Springs.
"Steamboat, I believe, is the most surprising location to forecast for in the entire state," said Joel Gratz, of http://www.opensnow.com.
Weissbluth, who runs http://www.snowalarm.com, said jokingly that he moved to Steamboat so he couldn't be hurt by a bad forecast. If a storm drops more snow than predicted or it arrives a day late, he still is here to capitalize on the fresh powder.
But Weissbluth and Gratz also are part of the trend of meteorologists striking out on their own with services designed so that no one has to miss out on a powder day.
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The appetite clearly is there for winter sports enthusiasts to get ahead of the weather and take advantage of all the powder they can, but how can trained meteorologists afford to fulfill that need and maybe even make a profit while doing so?
"I would love to monetize the site somehow," Weissbluth said about http://www.snowalarm.com, which allows users to set custom alerts for snowfall at resorts and delivers morning reports for those who are planning quick trips.
The website has some limited advertising, he said, but he doesn't have a business background and making it happen isn't his first priority right now.
Weissbluth has a Ph.D. in atmospheric science from Colorado State University and specialized in numerical weather prediction — running weather models.
"Because of that, I developed a fairly large tool chest for the Web," he said.
He does back-end programming for Web development and wrote the code for Snow Alarm.
"I kinda did this for my own needs in 1999," he said.
What his site offers that's unique, he said, is it gathers snow report data from individual resorts as well as the aggregators and lets users know when those don't match up.
Although he is quoted in the Steamboat Today offering forecast information for Steamboat Ski Area, Weissbluth does not offer tailored forecasts through Snow Alarm. He said he's more comfortable making forecasts in a discussion format during which he can talk about uncertainties inherent to weather forecasting.
But without a concrete business plan for how to make money from the site, Weissbluth said, he's just keeping it going as is.
"How do you make people believe that your product is better for them?" he asked. "I don't know."
Open Snow is among the websites breaking trail in paid, independent weather forecasting.
The Boulder-based company Gratz founded with Andrew Murray has gone from an email newsletter that Gratz started with 28 subscribers in December 2007 to a full-fledged business with a reach in the hundreds of thousands and 1,500 paid subscribers who've signed up in the past few weeks.
The site offers state forecasts and reports for regions across the nation as well as snow total predictions for the resorts in those regions.
Each region has its own forecaster, and Gratz forecasts for Colorado.
"What people really love is the human voice in their local region," Gratz said. "That is by far the main reason we expanded."
The website has moved into Tahoe, Utah, New England and the mid-Atlantic from Gratz's original email-list-turned-website: Colorado Powder Forecast.
"From a business-model standpoint, it started without one in a way," Gratz said. "When it seemed like there was actually an audience involved, we decided that this could actually be a business."
It was mostly consulting work that paid the bills for Gratz when he was working on Colorado Powder Forecast. It wasn't until starting http://www.opensnow.com in November 2011 that they started to get serious about ad sales, he said.
Most recently, Open Snow has turned to premium subscriptions to help fund the website.
It now offers pro and super pro accounts, priced at $20 per year and $45 per year, respectively. The accounts offer new features in addition to what can be accessed for free through the site, which hasn't changed.
Gratz said they decided to offer premium accounts for two reasons. First, even if they sold all the potential advertising on the site, it wouldn't be what Gratz called an "interesting business." What that means, he said, is the funds wouldn't be available to continue to add features and keep improving the service. For example, Gratz hopes to launch a new forecast model next year that takes advantage of local knowledge of specific forecast areas.
"This will probably be the only thing like it in ski country when it comes out next year," he said. "It's these types of research and development we need the money for."
"The other reason is I wanted to work directly for the people that use the site not just the advertisers," Gratz added. "Our efforts and our time were not aligned with the users, and that just didn’t feel right."
Advertising always will be an important part of the site, he said, but they have more control over their business when they're getting paid by users.
Right now, the site is close to getting about one-third of its revenue from subscribers, which is really good, Gratz said.
"I'd be thrilled to get at least half the revenue from people directly using the site," he said.
Having a paying user base will benefit the product by freeing up more time from sales to focus on improvements and allowing for more investment, Gratz said.
"This is just the start of what we're doing," he said. "We hope that we can be in business and doing this for decades to come."
The site seems to have cracked at least some of the code for getting people to pay for a service online, something that digital businesses of all stripes have struggled with.
"I think the product we provide is helpful. I want to run a business around that," Gratz said. "Part of running a business that people enjoy is to keep making it better.
"We started this and brought in these other forecasters from around the country, and they were either doing it for free or making very little money. If we join together and become more professional about the website and advertising … we could actually make some money."
Although meteorologists like Weissbluth and others who run snow forecasting websites might not have solved their own business-model riddles, that doesn't mean they'll stop watching and discussing the weather.
"I enjoy it. It's challenging," Weissbluth said. "It's an innate type of desire I have."
To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com