Jack in the box: You can't keep Smith down

Five years ago, Jack Smith owned a web design company and considered himself in good company. Now, however, the dot-com landscape has changed, and Smith is a rarity.

"I'm kind of the last man standing," he says.

But the company he started in 1998, PeopleSpace Inc., is not just surviving in the post dot-com climate; it's thriving.

What's his secret?

"The only way to succeed in business," Smith deadpans, "is to stay in business."

For Smith that has meant slashing costs from $30,000 a month overhead to $5,000– and shifting his business focus.

PeopleSpace now specializes in "advergaming." Using the popularity of games as a hook actually called a "sticky application"– Smith, along with two full-time employees and a number of contractors, helps companies add depth to their websites.

"The average visit to a web page is seconds," Smith explains. "Once you add games, the average is seven minutes."

Some big groups see the value. For instance, the official site of the National Hockey League offers PeopleSpace's "Puck Shuffle," a simple yet possibly addictive game in which players attempt to clear a board of different colored hockey pucks by clicking on groups of matching circles.

That game can be used for nearly any purpose, Smith explains, and indeed the Washington Redskins are considering the same game with their logo on the circles.

Then there's "Dental Defense," offered at Dentistry.com, a Space Invaders-type premise in which you attempt to defend your teeth from the ravages of too many sweets. If one too many cookies or cupcakes hit your molars, watch those pearly whites turn a dingy brown and then fall out.

Even Playboy's gotten some PeopleSpace action, with a video strip poker game in which players can win a playmate's clothes right off her body.

What's Smith's favorite? "That would have to be 'Mooz,'" he says. The G-rated puzzle game asks players to group farm animals together in threes (play it at peoplespace.com/mooz).

Smith, whose passion for games is obvious from the walls of toys lining the conference room he shares with developer Gabe Silverman, says he hopes the last few years of pinching pennies are coming to an end. He says he's currently negotiating a dozen different deals with businesses and ad agencies, and hopes he can pay back those who have helped him get by during the dark days of dot-comism.

"Charlottesville has been my city of angels," says Smith. "If I were in New York, I would have had a million-dollar business, but I'd probably have gone out of business." Here, he's had friends and even competitors offer him a hundred dollars or a place to stay.

"Now, my goal," says Smith, "is to click into high gear."

Jack Smith.