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CityStar: International business directory

Like so many, my introduction to the world of computers was through video games. My interest intensified in 1983 when I produced and directed a TV show about expert gamers, Video Game All Stars. At the time, the best games were found exclusively in coin-operated video arcades. In November 1983 I entered the video game industry as a manager for Nickels and Dimes, a chain of arcades. I bought my first computer in 1985 and began teaching myself to write software and create computer graphics. I created a Dig Dug style game with joystick controls and a spreadsheet program to track game revenues.

I worked with Macintosh and Amiga computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating game graphics, point of sale displays and touchscreen interfaces. By the early Nineties I was logging on to a BBS (bulletin board system) and searching with Gopher. I remember downloading my first binary file, a 10K photo. Using a modem connection, it took 20 minutes to get it. While working in the game business, I did animation and video work both at my job and also freelanced in my spare time, and went totally digital with that work in 1991.

In 1994, I made the decision to exit the game business and once again make animation my full time pursuit. That year, when I changed the name of Everyman Studios (established 1973) to ARG! Cartoon Animation and leased space for the new digital studio, I started out with very few clients and almost no work. Fortunately, Hollywood had a place for me, and soon I flew to Boston to work with my old Everyman Studios partners Darrel Anderson and Rick Berry on visual effects for the TriStar (Sony Pictures) production of Johnny Mnemonic. I really enjoyed animating groundbreaking digital visuals for one of the first cyberpunk films, but after my work was completed and I returned to Colorado Springs, business was still slow.

Johnny Mnemonic CG

I had just taught myself HTML coding and had built a small website for ARG! on my AOL web space. Rather than starve, I decided to apply my programming and computer graphics skills as a Web developer. In 1995, most businesses didn't have a website, and there were very few graphic designers who knew how to create them. Fortunately, I subleased my studio space in an ad agency's building. They were my first web design clients, subcontracting me to build a huge real estate brokerage's website and more. At first I did all the coding and graphics myself, but soon I started hiring other artists and technicians to take care of the needs of an increasing number of Web development clients.

Obviously, ARG! Cartoon Animation was a poor brand name for a company that developed websites, so in 1996 I registered citystar.com and started promoting CityStar® as our Web design brand.

In 1997, CityStar's business started getting big. One could say that the tail wagged the dog after a while. Early that year I had volunteered to turn the Colorado Springs Film Commission's Production Resource Guide, an expensive book that had always been distributed primarily by postal mail, into an online resource. I wasn't super busy at that point, and I thought it would be a good way to help the local film and video production community. At my own expense, I registered FilmColoradoSprings.com and quickly built the site, almost single-handedly. To my surprise, the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau learned of my donation and their management was grateful for what I had done. They asked me to bid on building them a new website. This was my big break in web development, since travel and tourism was a billion dollar business in The Springs, and the CVB (which is now known as Experience Colorado Springs) had about 800 member businesses. Almost immediately, our little studio was swamped with referrals from the CVB for new websites and redesigns. We continued to design, host, maintain and promote prominent Colorado Springs tourism sites for many years thereafter.

Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau website, spring, 1999

I had set out in 1994 to build a new digital animation studio under the ARG! brand, and suddenly I was getting to be known as "the computer guy." That was a bit irritating, but the money was good, and I decided to ride this wave for a while. Over the next few years I expanded the business into banner ad design, website hosting, search engine marketing, an ISP (CityStar® Online) and even an ad agency, Artie Romero Graphics. We hired support technicians, programmers, designers, animators, sales people and even a receptionist. We sold domain registrations, did search engine optimization, produced live action video in addition to animation, and the ad agency did TV media buying in addition to production and public relations. I was chasing dollars.

In 1999, we incorporated CityStar® and converted the citystar.com site into a local business directory. As we expanded from a regional company to national to international, it made sense to create a CityStar® site for each large city where we had customers. We built more than 300 city directory sites, for example:

New York CityStar business directory
newyork.citystar.com (click on "More Search Options" to drill down). At first our branding was "national website directory," scoring #1 on Google, then we shifted into calling it the international business directory. At one point we listed more than 96,000 businesses in these sites. We were in the top ten on Google for thousands of keywords. We sold advertising on the sites, and life was good.

Animation was not forgotten; in fact profits from Web development and directory advertising went toward expanding the ARG! website. In addition to my personal efforts, we usually had at least one staff animator producing innumerable small Flash and GIF cartoons. We animated GIFs for each upcoming holiday and sports season throughout the year, and regularly added dozens of pages to the ARG! site. Ultimately more than 15,000 pages were created for Artie.com. Its growth was phenomenal, and in 2005 and 2006 the ARG! site got a combined 1.2 billion hits. ARG! created more than 57,000 GIFs, and we market them as the ARG! Kartoon Kollection.

Linkware item: An animated GIF by William Kirk Kennedy and Artie RomeroBack in 1996, I had pioneered the concept of linkware, which I define as offering items of value on your website in exchange for a one-way backlink. My implementation was to offer visitors to the ARG! site free non-commercial use of our animations in exchange for a link to the Artie.com site. I added a little insurance to the deal by including a tiny watermark of "ARTIE.COM" in all the animations. This was wildly successful, and by the time Yahoo! selected Google as its default search provider in the year 2000, there were 17,000 backlinks to Artie.com. With the dawn of Google's revolutionary algorythm prioritizing link popularity, the linkware idea paid off in massive traffic to the ARG! site and hundreds of new clients for our animation studio. Artie.com scored top 10 rankings on literally thousands of cartoon-related keywords.

CityStar advertised nationally on TV and radio, and used billboards, bus shelters, colorful big yellow pages ads, direct mail and brochures to get the word out. I wrote and presented 'Net Profit$, a series of ten Internet Marketing workshops sponsored by the Better Business Bureau and the Pikes Peak Library District, and the sessions were videotaped and released as a boxed set of DVDs. I was also interviewed often on local TV and radio news shows whenever they had a Web related story.

I was running seven businesses by 2003, and only one of them, the ARG! studio, meant more than just money to me. I had gained a lot of weight and suffered from back trouble because of a lack of exercise, sitting at a computer for long hours almost every day. Something had to give.

That summer I attended a Tony Robbins "Ultimate Power Weekend." I didn't know what to expect from the event, but I walked barefoot on a bed of hot coals and was encouraged to set some goals for myself. I found that I had the power to change my life, my sons' lives, and focus on my passion, art and animation. My first challenge was to get fit, lose weight and climb Pikes Peak. I had never made the climb of 7400 vertical feet and 13.4 miles in less than two days, but I accomplished it in 12 hours on September 13, 2003.

Over the next few years I lost 40 pounds, and in June, 2008 I sold the ISP, web design and hosting client lists and servers. That left me with just the animation studio, the directory advertising business and a little SEO work. Things were getting better, because I was able to focus on things that mattered most to me.

The CityStar web directory's sales had peaked in early 2008, and it was badly in need of a new design. My son Ricky had started working for CityStar® Group as an intern, and had worked his way up to CIO. During that time, he had designed some gorgeous sites, including the National Day of Prayer website in 2005. He left CityStar® that year to work for Yahoo! and by 2008 he was a designer at Intuit. Although he was no longer on our staff, I asked Ricky if he would grace us with a new design for citystar.com, and he delivered a beautiful new look. My son Tim contributed scripts that automated the maintenance of the directories, and directed a powerful TV commercial that brought us more customers. By early 2014, the CityStar® complex had more than 11,000 pages, sales had rebounded, and everything was ready. It was time to sell the sites, the trademark and all of the intellectual property associated with CityStar®. The properties were auctioned, and my mission of getting focus in my life was accomplished in August, 2014.

Ricky Romero's design for the 2005 National Day of Prayer website

After building and maintaining so many sites, I'm pleased that my web development work now consists of just the ARG! site and the one you're reading now. Joy!

Over the past few years, I've enjoyed mentoring an innovative web developer, Joshua Osborne. He was already a serial entrepreneur when I met him, and his most recent companies are Mr. & Mrs. Leads and Rocketship SEO, based in Colorado Springs and Phoenix, respectively. I enjoy teaching talented young people the processes and lesser known techniques I learned from others who were willing to share their knowledge. For me, it's very rewarding, and it's great to see that Josh and Danelle Osborne are doing such wonderful work in the SEO space now.

Danelle and Joshua Osborne, Mr And Mrs Leads

Postscripts: Since I wrote the above, my wife Connie and I have moved to rural Oklahoma, but not before getting our computers upgraded in Colorado Springs. Even if you have a fast machine, its speed can be increased substantially by adding more RAM and installing a solid state drive. Soon we'll find out if we can get this level of technical service in our new home town. Wish me luck!
 

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The Artie Show | 1997 interview | IMDb | Wikipedia | Portfolio | Photos

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Copyright © 2018 Artie E. Romero. Updated 06/04/2018