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The Innovators: Markus Frind, the AdSense King

Markus Frind of Vancouver, BC is the surprising owner of an online dating site called plentyoffish.com. He's famous for being pictured holding up a check for $900,000 from Google, for Google AdSense ads he runs on the site. According to Hitwise, plentyoffish.com currently holds a 3% market share in the "lifestyle-dating" category, despite having only one employee.
 

 



1. What were you doing before you founded plentyoffish.com? What made you suited for the task of conceiving and promoting a community site with rapid growth in a highly competitive vertical? I know, a lot of people will say - "just make it better," but then they don't implement and can't achieve that. You did. Why do you think that is?

Every 6 months or so I was jumping from 1 dot-com to another as the entire Internet industry was going down the drain here. I didn't start the site with a grand plan in mind. I had been doing ASP for years and the market was going towards ASP.net. I don't like learning from books and the only way to really learn was to just sit down and write in it. So one day I just sat down and started writing a dating site in ASP.net/ASP, once I learned enough I started porting my ASP pages into ASP.net.

As for the growth, a think a lot of that was accidental or first-mover advantage. Here in Canada LavaLife was the only real dating site, and they had a monopoly. I had a couple of my friends sign up from the major cities and after that the site just started to grow and spread. Every successful business is about being in the right place at the right time.

2. How did you come up with the idea to get a foot in the door of the online personals market by making the whole service free? Just your personal dislike of existing personals sites?

I was running the entire site off my home PC and ADSL connection for the first 8 months. There was no real plan, I wasn't even sure what I was going to do with the site. At the end of October 2003, I was getting so much traffic that I had to buy a server and move it to a hosting facility. I always liked free sites and couldn't see why companies had to change insane amounts of money for something that was trivial to make. At the time I was also working and I didn't have the money to convert the site to a paid service, or hire all the customer support people necessary. I also didn't feel my site was stable enough to charge for.

3. You're legendary for having no employees. How many people currently work at your company? Do you have expansion plans?

Just me right now, my girlfriend helps with some of the customer service stuff when I don't want to do it. I am planning on expanding into other markets but I don't think I need to hire any employees any time soon. Nearly all the work can be automated away except for user stupidity that leads to crazy questions.

4. What do you think the relationship between offline promo and online success has been for your service? Do you do more and more real-world networking nowadays?

Offline promo works well when marketing to huge existing customer base. It does not work well when trying to grow big. I allow my users to host singles events all over the world and many of the people that show up to these things end up not even being members of the site. Like nearly every other site I sort of ignore offline marketing, as it is far too expensive when you don't have huge numbers of people in your target market already using your service.

5. Have you noticed the established players copying your ideas? When did that start happening?

This happened from day one, the first thing that was copied was allowing people to select things like "I don't want to receive messages from Americans," etc. The other sites don't innovate they just copy what works from the other sites. The complete lack of originality from the established players is probably the main reason plentyoffish.com has been able to grow so fast and so big in such a short period of time.

6. A cursory look at Alexa or similar stats reports shows your site's reach growing rapidly from inception. But did you feel like there was a tipping point, say when you reached in the top 10,000 of sites overall? Not that these numbers are accurate, but the pattern looks like steady growth with a brief period of even faster growth when you got under the top 10,000 overall, in late 2004. (Currently Alexa says you're #679 of all sites. Again, not that this is accurate, but it's roughly helpful.) Any insight into when steady growth either stops, or accelerates?

This graph here is closer to my real traffic growth. Online dating really sucks when compared to social networking. Every month I lose 30% of my traffic as the average dater only stays 3 months. Social networks, on the other hand, retain users and just keep growing and growing and end up making a hell of a lot more money. I don't think there really is a tipping point; the growth is slow and steady, things speed up in January and then slow down over the summer months. That can be said for all Internet companies, though. You can't draw many conclusions from an Alexa rank of 10,000 -- that is only a sample of 30 Alexa users a day.

7. I read you actually blocked Alexa users from signing up in the early days. You wanted to fly under the radar. Surely that wasn't 100% effective?

It blocked about 70% of them, so not all of them. Blocking Alexa is very trivial -- all you need to do is check for Alexa in the browser user-agent. My Alexa rank of 600-700 means I have a grand total of 190 Alexa users per day. You need very few users with the Alexa toolbar installed to rank high, just take a look at DigitalPoint.

8. Do you have plans to sell the company? How much is it worth? If you go by 5X revenues or so, that's a lot of coin. As you know, Weblogs, Inc. sold for some ridiculous multiple like 25X annual revenues. They actually *needed* to sell.

I have no plans to sell, and the company is worth as much as someone is willing to pay for it. Weblogs just sold for a crazy amount, especially considering they had such huge overhead and little profits.

9. What do you see other startups doing wrong? Other dating startups? Are there any you particularly admire? Why didn't Friendster make it?

There are so many startups, and they are here one day, and gone the next. There are around 300 social networking startups now, and maybe 5 to 10 of those are going to be around in a few years. It's not that these startups are doing stuff wrong, it's the fact there can only be a handful of winners. There are a lot of dating startups, but I don't pay much attention to them as they only last a couple of months and then fade away.

The biggest reason Friendster didn't make it was because there was no purpose to the site. You sign up bring your friends to the site, that is great and all, but there was just nothing to do once you were there. People got bored and left, and the extreme slowness of the site didn't help them at all.

10. Sites like Yahoo, Google, and Craigslist are famous for getting ahead with "anti-design" (though Yahoo got cluttered as it grew). Is that a source of your success? Did any of them inspire you?

I like simplicity, and I am not a graphic designer at all. Success doesn't come down to just one thing. Its not like Microsoft can clone Google's layout and be the largest search engine. Success is a combination of things and having the right idea at the right time.

11. Did any major design or development dilemmas crop up along the way? What was your most important user interface decision, beyond keeping it smooth and simple, I mean?

Database and performance issues. Online dating is one of the most complex applications there is online. Every single one of my competitors has several hundred servers because the CPU/ RAM needed to generate search results and support tens of thousands of concurrent users. I have a lot of issues these days especially when I peak out at 35,000 concurrent users. I redesign my site every couple of weeks so it doesn't get crushed by the sheer number of users online. As for front-end design I could care less, lots of users are using my site and more are coming every day, my number one focus is making sure the site stays up for another day.

Thanks for your time, Markus! Believe it or not, you are the first interviewee in our "Innovators" series. We've got a few others on the list, but I was more motivated to contact you than any of the others. :)

 

About the Innovators Series

Online innovation, be it soft innovation or revolutionary breakthrough, drives the contemporary economy. Traffick.com interviews leaders in e-business models, search, and vertical niches to find out what makes them tick. Like the interviews
(11 questions), our innovators "Go to Eleven."

 

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