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May 23, 2007

PlentyofFish.com — file under 'things that make me go hmmm'


I'd never heard of this website, based in the 16th-floor Vancouver, Canada apartment of 28-year-old Markus Frind, until I read about it in Lee Gomes's "Portals" column in today's Wall Street Journal.

Long story short: "For the week ended April 28, it was the 96th-busiest Web site in the U.S., according to the HitWise tracking service. That means it has more traffic than some of the Net's best-known destinations, such as Apple.com. Mr. Frind says the site brings in between $5 million and $10 million a year."

Here's the column.

    PlentyOfFish Owner Has the Perfect Bait For a Huge Success

    The headquarters of what may be, on a per-capita basis, the busiest, most profitable site on the entire World Wide Web is on the 16th floor of a brand-new Vancouver building with panoramic views of the nearby Canadian Rockies.

    It happens to be the apartment of 28-year-old Markus Frind, the owner and sole employee of PlentyOfFish.com, a free online dating site and a model for the next generation of Web entrepreneurship.

    Lots of people run Web sites by themselves. But it's likely that no other solo venture runs at the scale of PlentyOfFish. For the week ended April 28, it was the 96th-busiest Web site in the U.S., according to the HitWise tracking service. That means it has more traffic than some of the Net's best-known destinations, such as Apple.com.

    Busy Web sites like these usually require scores of people: technicians, certainly, to keep the servers running, but also programmers, marketers and the rest. Mr. Frind says people often don't believe him when he says PlentyOfFish is all his.

    I needed to see for myself, so I spent an afternoon touring the company's roomy offices, which most people would call a spare bedroom. Unless there is a team of programmers hidden down the hall, or off in Bangalore, things are exactly as Mr. Frind says they are.

    Mr. Frind was born in a small rural town in northern British Columbia. He headed to Vancouver in the late 1990s, went to trade school in computers and rotated through several dot-com jobs before starting PlentyOfFish in 2003 to keep himself busy.

    The site was done without much of a plan, though Mr. Frind was intent on finding out how far he could get keeping it entirely free of charge. Most other dating sites charge anywhere between $20 and $40 a month for membership.

    The site became popular in Canada and, later, in the U.S. Mr. Frind says he doesn't know exactly why.

    There are now 1.2 million active members. HitWise says it's one of the five-busiest dating sites. Nielsen/NetRatings says that by some measures, such as the time its members spend on the site, it ranks second after eHarmony.

    How does he do it? In large part, by keeping things simple. The graphical design ranges from rudimentary to nonexistent. No wonder, since Mr. Frind did it himself. The site also won't win any J.D. Power awards for customer support. If you write in with a problem, the odds are long about hearing back from either Mr. Frind or his girlfriend, Annie Kanciar, who helps now and then answering emails.

    The site runs on Microsoft software on a half-dozen machines at a hosting facility a few miles away. From his bedroom, though, Mr. Frind can keep tabs on everything going on. When I was visiting last week, he showed me the site's monitoring program: 43,000 people were at PlentyOfFish at that moment, with 500 Web pages a second being sent out.

    When you have that kind of traffic, you can make money three ways: via Google's small text ads, with bigger banner ads and through "affiliate marketing," where other sites pay you for sending them customers. Mr. Frind does all three — and does very well. A few months back, he posted on his blog a picture of a check from Google for nearly $1 million for a two-month period. Google confirmed the check was for real.

    Mr. Frind says the site brings in between $5 million and $10 million a year; lest even more competitors get onto his success, he declines to be more specific. That puts him ahead of some of the Web's best: Last year, each Google employee generated an average $1 million in sales.

    PlentyOfFish is the success that it is because of several converging Web trends. Servers and server software have become simple and reliable enough that they can run on their own, without a lot of babysitting. What's more, a remarkably sophisticated economic infrastructure now exists that allows busy Web sites to make lots of money, certainly enough for one person to live very well. (Mr. Frind's consumption so far doesn't appear to be conspicuous; his major indulgence is travel.)

    Mr. Frind, as one person, can afford to give it away. The big dating sites can't make enough just on Google ads to do the same thing, but the smaller sites can. One small site, HotOrNot.com, is dropping its monthly fees, fashioning itself after PlentyOfFish.

    An ascent of free sites could shake up the online dating scene, which is already struggling with flattening growth in the U.S. Nate Elliott, who follows online dating for Jupiter Research, doubts the big Web sites have anything to worry about from for-free competitors. Mr. Frind disagrees; he said his own traffic in Canada has fallen lately as Facebook, the free social-networking site, has become more popular up north.

    Many companies would respond to that sort of competitive pressure by hiring someone -- say, a strategic planner. Mr. Frind says he has no plans to do so. He has nothing against employees, he says, and he insists he isn't a control freak. Instead, he just enjoys the freedom to work on whatever part of the site interests him on a given day, without having to fret about who else might be involved. "No one else has ever done something like this before," he says. "It's like my own personal toy."


That last sentence is about the only thing he and I have in common.

Oh, well.

May 23, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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