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3/17/2008
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Solo Entrepreneurs: Big Bucks From Tiny Computing Startups

One-person companies are earning upward of $1 million in revenue annually. How do they do it? With high-speed Internet connectivity, mobile apps, automation, and a little help from their customers.

The Wisdom Of Crowds

Markus Frind has been getting a lot of attention lately. He's been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and numerous other mainstream consumer and business publications. Much has been made of the fact that Frind only works part-time -- by his estimate, only 10 hours a week -- to keep his free online dating site, Plenty of Fish, up and running. Acclaimed as "the world's most productive business," by Henry Blodget at Silicon Alley Insider, Plenty of Fish is run out of Frind's home in Toronto.

The site was founded in 2003, and, according to Frind, is netting more than $10 million annually from advertising and affiliate marketing revenue. In a typical display of showmanship, Frind last year posted a photo of a nearly-$1 million check from Google AdSense for just a two-month period (Google confirmed the check was real.)

Automation is key to Frind's success. He wrote the site using .Net, which gives users the tools to post their profiles online themselves, without handholding. He also created an algorithm that allows him to automatically separate legitimate forum posts from spam. But Frind also depends heavily on his user base. Volunteers pour over the more than 50,000 photographs of new members that are submitted every day, and weed out the ones that seem suspicious or which involve nudity. Additionally, Frind noticed several years ago that in his user forums people had started rating and voting on the photos of other members. At the same time, he was constantly being contacted by users who were reporting offensive or inappropriate threads or posts that they felt should be deleted. Frind realized he could spend all his time moderating such activities. Instead, he created an automated system to allow users to vote on everything from whether a string should be deleted to ranking other users to deciding if a member photo is of too poor a quality, or too obscene, to be posted. "I allow people to vote on whether something should be deleted. If seven out of 10 respondents want it gone, it's gone," Frind says.

When criticized for having an ugly and difficult-to-navigate site, Frind just shrugged. "People only use stuff that works," he pointed out. His biggest and most time-consuming challenge is keeping the membership of the site fresh and up to date. "Approximately 30% of your members stop coming every month," he said. "It's just a fact of the business. People either find someone or they give up." Mostly, getting rid of the inactive accounts is a manual process, he said, although he does "look at patterns, and at how the site is running, when deciding whom to eliminate.

Most of the tasks Frind performs are related to infrastructure: adding servers, making the site run more efficiently. "For example, Boxing Day [the day after Christmas] is our biggest day of the year. Our traffic increases 20% overnight," he said. "This year I had to run out and buy and set up two new servers to accommodate the rush of activity."

Frind recently hired his first -- and what will probably be his last -- employee, who handles complaints about possible fraud and information requests from law enforcement agencies. But mostly he doesn't like the thought of having to manage people. "I have the skills to do everything myself, why would I need to hire anyone else?" he asked.

What does Frind do with his ample free time? He travels a lot. Spends time with his girlfriend. Blogs. And he's glad he can choose to work when he pleases. "Like with any job, it's not an issue of how much you work, but how smart you work," he said.

"This is pretty much a business that runs itself," he said. The fact that technology costs are dropping so fast has made his business scalable and flexible enough to accommodate the kind of growth necessary to remain competitive with competitors like Match.com. "This wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago," he said.

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