And the Money Comes Rolling In
At 10 o'clock in the morning, Markus Frind leaves his apartment and heads to work.
It's a short walk through downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, but somehow the trek feels arduous. This is not because Frind is lazy. Well, Frind is a bit lazy, but that's another matter. The problem is that he is still getting used to the idea of a commute that involves traveling farther than the distance between the living room and the bedroom.
Frind's online dating company, Plenty of Fish, is newly located on the 26th floor of a downtown skyscraper with a revolving restaurant on the roof. The gleaming space could easily house 30 employees, but as Frind strides in, it is eerily quiet -- just a room with new carpets, freshly painted walls, and eight flat-screen computer monitors. Frind drops his bag and plops himself down in front of one of them.
He looks down at his desk. There's a $180,000 order waiting for his signature. It's from VideoEgg, a San Francisco company that is paying Frind to run a series of Budweiser commercials in Canada. Like most of his advertising deals, this one found Frind. He hadn't even heard of VideoEgg until a week ago. But then, you tend to attract advertisers' attention when you are serving up 1.6 billion webpages each month.
That's a lot of personal ads. "One-point-six ba-hillion," Frind says slowly, smacking his lips on the hard b. "There are maybe 10 sites in the U.S. with more than that." Five years ago, he started Plenty of Fish with no money, no plan, and scant knowledge of how to build a Web business. Today, according to the research firm Hitwise, his creation is the largest dating website in the U.S. and quite possibly the world. Its traffic is four times that of the dating pioneer Match, which has annual revenue of $350 million and a staff that numbers in the hundreds. Until 2007, Frind had a staff of exactly zero. Today, he employs just three customer service workers, who check for spam and delete nude images from the Plenty of Fish website while Frind handles everything else.
Amazingly, Frind has set up his company so that doing everything else amounts to doing almost nothing at all. "I usually accomplish everything in the first hour," he says, before pausing for a moment to think this over. "Actually, in the first 10 or 15 minutes."
To demonstrate, Frind turns to his computer and begins fiddling with a free software program that he uses to manage his advertising inventory. While he is doing this, he carps about Canada's high income-tax rate, a serious problem considering that Plenty of Fish is on track to book revenue of $10 million for 2008, with profit margins in excess of 50 percent. Then, six minutes and 38 seconds after beginning his workday, Frind closes his Web browser and announces, "All done."
All done? Are you serious? "The site pretty much runs itself," he explains. "Most of the time, I just sit on my ass and watch it." There's so little to do that he and his girlfriend, Annie Kanciar, spent the better part of last summer sunning themselves on the French Riviera. Frind would log on at night, spend a minute or two making sure there were no serious error messages, and then go back to sipping expensive wine. A year ago, they relaxed for a couple of weeks in Mexico with a yacht, a captain, and four of Kanciar's friends. "Me and five girls," he says. "Rough life."
As Frind gets up to leave, I ask him what he has planned for the rest of the day. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'll take a nap."
It's a 21st-century fairy tale: A young man starts a website in his spare time. This person is unknown and undistinguished. He hasn't gone to MIT, Stanford, or any other four-year college for that matter, yet he is deceptively brilliant. He has been bouncing, aimlessly, from job to job, but he is secretly ambitious. He builds his company by himself and from his apartment. In most stories, this is where the hard work begins -- the long hours, sleepless nights, and near-death business experiences. But this one is way more mellow. Frind takes it easy, working no more than 20 hours a week during the busiest times and usually no more than 10. Five years later, he is running one of the largest websites on the planet and paying himself more than $5 million a year.
Frind, 30, doesn't seem like the sort of fellow who would run a market-leading anything. Quiet, soft-featured, and ordinary looking, he is the kind of person who can get lost in a roomful of people and who seems to take up less space than his large frame would suggest. Those who know Frind describe him as introverted, smart, and a little awkward. "Markus is one of those engineers who is just more comfortable sitting in front of a computer than he is talking to someone face to face," says Noel Biderman, the co-founder of Avid Life Media, a Toronto-based company that owns several dating sites.
When he does engage in conversation, Frind can be disarmingly frank, delivering vitriolic quips with a self-assured cheerfulness that feels almost mean. Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), he says, is "a complete joke," Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is "a cult," and Match is "dying." Says Mark Brooks, a marketing consultant who has advised Frind since 2006, "I've never known anybody so competitive. He always says exactly what he thinks."
With friends and family, Frind expresses affection through playful pranks. Frind will spend hours hiding in the three-bedroom apartment he and Kanciar share, furtively flipping light switches, tapping on doors, and ducking into rooms to play on his girlfriend's fear of ghosts. Another memorable valentine involved the secret consumption of a massive quantity of hot peppers. Though his mouth was on fire, Frind calmly planted a kiss on Kanciar's lips and feigned ignorance as she went scrambling for water.
Kanciar, a freelance Web designer who also helps out around Plenty of Fish, is a lanky blonde with an easy smile and a hearty laugh, which she uses liberally to try to get Frind to open up. When I ask him to talk about what he does with the 23 hours a day in which he doesn't work, Frind struggles to answer and then looks helplessly at Kanciar. She offers a few suggestions -- video games, ski trips, walks -- and then tries to focus his energies. "We're trying to convince Max that we're interesting," she says sweetly.
That's not easy for Frind, who seems most comfortable with the world at arm's length. "He never raises his voice," Kanciar says later. "And he doesn't like conflict." Frind prefers to remain a silent observer of others who then constructs arguments and counterarguments about their motivations. He seems perpetually lost in thought, constantly thinking about and studying the world around him. "He's always watching his environment to apply it to the site," says Kanciar. "Once in a while, from the middle of nowhere, he'll say, 'Why is that girl doing that?' or 'Why is that guy posing like that?' He'll check people out in restaurants and watch how they interact. In a way, he's thinking about the company all the time."
Frind spent his formative years on a grain farm in the northern hinterlands of British Columbia -- "the bush" in local parlance. His hometown, Hudson's Hope, is a cold, isolated place not far from the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Frind's parents, German farmers who emigrated just before his fourth birthday, bought a 1,200-acre plot 10 miles from town and initially lived in a trailer without electricity, phones, or running water. The family's closest neighbors were a mile and a half away, and, apart from a younger brother, Frind had few friends. "His problem was English," says his father, Eduard Frind. "If you don't have English, you can't do anything." Frind eventually adjusted, but his was a lonely childhood. He rarely visits Hudson's Hope these days. When his parents want to see him, they make the 14-hour drive southward.
After graduating from a technical school in 1999 with a two-year degree in computer programming, Frind got a job at an online shopping mall. Then, the dot-com bubble burst, and he spent the next two years bouncing from failed start-up to failing start-up. For most of 2002, he was unemployed. "Every six months, I got a new job," Frind says. "It'd start with 30 people, and then five months later, there'd be five. It was brutal." When he did have work, it felt like torture. His fellow engineers seemed to be writing deliberately inscrutable code in order to protect their jobs. "It would literally take me four or five hours," he says -- an eternity in Markus Frind time -- "just to make heads or tails of their code, when normally you're supposed to spend, like, two minutes doing that."
But cleaning up other people's messes taught Frind how to quickly simplify complex code. In his spare time, he started working on a piece of software that was designed to find prime numbers in arithmetic progression. The topic, a perennial challenge in mathematics because it requires lots of computing power, had been discussed in one of his classes, and Frind thought it would be a fun way to learn how to sharpen his skills. He finished the hobby project in 2002, and, two years later, his program discovered a string of 23 prime numbers, the longest ever. (Frind's record has since been surpassed, but not before it was cited by UCLA mathematician and Fields Medal winner Terence Tao.) "It was just a way of teaching myself something," Frind says. "I was learning how to make the computer as fast as possible."
By early 2003, the technology economy in Vancouver had yet to bounce back, and Frind's sixth employer in three years was laying off half its work force. Worried that he would again find himself unemployed, Frind decided he needed to bolster his qualifications. He would devote a couple of weeks to mastering Microsoft's new tool for building websites, ASP.net, and he would do it by building the hardest kind of website he could think of.
Online dating was an inspired choice. Not only does the act of building an intricate web of electronic winks, smiles, and nudges require significant programming skills, but the industry has always been a friendly place for oddballs and opportunists. Industry pioneer Gary Kremen, the founder of Match and the man who registered the Sex.com domain name, cites rapper Ice Cube and the bank robber "Slick" Willie Sutton as important influences on his business philosophy. Another pioneer, James Hong, co-founded Hot or Not, a site with a single, crude feature. Hong allowed users to upload pictures of themselves and have other users rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. Hot or Not was acquired for $20 million in cash last year by Noel Biderman's company, Avid Life. Avid, which has also courted Plenty of Fish, derives most of its revenue from Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people (tag line: "Life is short. Have an affair"). The site has 2.8 million members and revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.
Unlike many online dating entrepreneurs, Frind didn't start Plenty of Fish to meet women -- or even because he had some vision of business glory. "It was a burning desire to have something stable," he says. "And I didn't really want to work." Frind's eyes were also a factor. He suffers from hypersensitivity to light, and his eyes were not taking well to long days in front of a screen. Working a few hours an evening for two weeks, Frind built a crude dating site, which he named Plenty of Fish. It was desperately simple -- just an unadorned list of plain-text personals ads. But it promised something that no big dating company offered: free.
The idea had initially come to Frind in 2001, when he started checking out Canada's then-largest dating site, Lavalife, hoping to meet women or at least to kill some time. Online dating seemed like a good idea, but he was startled to discover that the site charged users hefty fees. "I thought it was ridiculous," he says. "It was this rinky-dink little site charging money for something anyone could make. I was like, I can beat these guys."
This thought was not exactly new. Since the mid-'90s, there had been dozens of free dating start-ups, but all had struggled to attract users, because they were competing with the outsize marketing budgets of paid competitors like Lavalife. Paid sites could afford to spend $30 or $40 in advertising to acquire a user. A free site could afford to spend perhaps 40 cents, making it exceedingly hard to attract daters and still turn a profit. Frind's answer to this problem was somewhat radical. Rather than try to compete directly with Match, the industry leader, he created a website that cost almost nothing to run and was aimed at the sort of people who wanted to browse a few profiles but weren't ready to take out their credit cards. In doing so, he had found a way to reach a large, underserved market. Even better, he had created a perfect place for paid dating sites to spend their huge advertising budgets.
Plenty of Fish grew slowly at first as Frind focused on learning the programming language and trolling Internet forums for clues on how to increase his traffic. There are a handful of half-literate posts from early 2003 in which Frind asks basic questions, like "I am interested in know how much money sites generate off advertising." Reading these comments in retrospect paints a picture of determination and naiveté.
Frind knew little about search-engine optimization or online advertising, but he was a quick study. From March to November 2003, his site expanded from 40 members to 10,000. Frind used his home computer as a Web server -- an unusual but cost-effective choice -- and spent his time trying to game Google with the tricks he picked up on the forums. In July, Google introduced a free tool called AdSense, which allowed small companies to automatically sell advertisements and display them on their websites. Frind made just $5 in his first month, but by the end of the year, he was making more than $3,300 a month, largely by selling ads to paid dating sites that were interested in getting his unpaid members to trade up. He quit his job.
"Have you ever met anyone like me?" This is both a boast and a genuine question: Frind has few friends in business, no mentors, and no investors. Moreover, he has taken a path that seems at odds with the conventional wisdom about Internet companies. Most websites with as much traffic as Plenty of Fish would have by this point raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists, hired dozens of engineers and business-development types, and figured out a way to keep someone as unconventional as Markus Frind from making any major decisions.
But if Frind's methods make him unusual, he is also a man of his times. In the past few years, a new technological ecosystem, built around Google's dominance in Web search and its decision to offer powerful software tools at no charge, has changed the economics of doing business on the Internet. Web analytic services that used to cost thousands of dollars a year are now free. Competitive data, once available to only the largest companies, can be had with only a few clicks on Compete.com and Quantcast.com. And advertising networks, especially AdSense, have made it possible, even preferable, for Internet entrepreneurs to bootstrap their businesses without hiring a sales force and without raising much money. Websites that venture capitalists would have spent tens of millions of dollars building in 1998 can now be started with tens of dollars.
No one has used this ecosystem as effectively as Markus Frind, who has stayed simple, cheap, and lean even as his revenue and profits have grown well beyond those of a typical one-person company. Plenty of Fish is a designer's nightmare; at once minimalist and inelegant, it looks like something your nephew could have made in an afternoon. There's the color scheme that seems cribbed from a high school yearbook and the curious fondness for bold text and CAPITAL LETTERS. When searching for a prospective mate, one is inundated with pictures that are not cropped or properly resized. Instead, headshots are either comically squished or creepily elongated, a carnivalesque effect that makes it difficult to quickly size up potential mates.
Frind is aware of his site's flaws but isn't eager to fix them. "There's no point in making trivial adjustments," he says. Frind's approach -- and the reason he spends so little time actually working -- is to do no harm. This has two virtues: First, you can't waste money if you are not doing anything. And second, on a site this big and this complex, it is impossible to predict how even the smallest changes might affect the bottom line. Fixing the wonky images, for instance, might actually hurt Plenty of Fish. Right now, users are compelled to click on people's profiles in order to get to the next screen and view proper headshots. That causes people to view more profiles and allows Frind, who gets paid by the page view, to serve more ads. "The site works," he says. "Why should I change what works?"
Frind has resisted adding other commonly requested features, such as chatrooms and video profiles, on the same grounds. "I don't listen to the users," he says. "The people who suggest things are the vocal minority who have stupid ideas that only apply to their little niches." Instead, Frind has focused his energy on making the site better at matching people. When a member starts browsing through profiles, the site records his or her preferences and then narrows down its 10 million users to a more manageable group of potential mates. "Users never see the whole database," Frind says. "It gets smaller and more focused on what you're actually looking for." In other words, if you tell Plenty of Fish you want to date blond nonsmokers but spend all your time gawking at nicotine-addled brunettes, the program will adjust. "People think they know who the perfect person is, but that's not always who they really want," he says. Frind estimates, based on exit surveys, that the site creates 800,000 successful relationships a year.
But the brilliance of Plenty of Fish is not its strength as a matching engine; it is the site's low overhead. Not only has Frind managed to run his company with almost no staff, but he has also been able to run a massive database with almost no computer hardware. To get a sense of how efficient the operation is, consider that the social news site Digg generates about 250 million page views each month, or roughly one-sixth of Plenty of Fish's monthly traffic, and employs 80 people. Most websites as busy as Frind's use hundreds of servers. Frind has just eight. He is not eager to explain how he manages this, but he says that it mostly comes from writing efficient code, a necessity when you are the only code writer and are extremely averse to spending money on additional hardware and features. "At other sites, when one thing goes slightly wrong, the reaction is to buy more servers or hire a Ph.D.," he says. "It's almost unbelievable -- it's like people are trying to justify their jobs by spending money. This isn't rocket science."
Often, at the end of a long workday, which is to say around noon, Frind plays war games. His apartment is outfitted with five computers for group play of Age of Empires and Command & Conquer -- and he has a substantial collection of board games. He is good, too: When I joined him for a game of Risk in October, he sat silently for almost the entire game before clearing the board in a single, virtuosic turn. He was still gloating the next morning. Frind approaches business in much the same way. "It's a strategy game," he says. "You're trying to take over the world, one country at a time."
Frind's account of his own exploits, published on his blog in 2006 under the title "How I Started a Dating Empire," says a lot about his worldview: "I spent every waking minute when I wasn't at my day job reading, studying, and learning. I picked out 'enemies' and did everything I could to defeat them, which meant being bigger than them. I refused to accept defeat of any kind." Around the same time, he returned to one of his old Internet hangouts, a forum called WebmasterWorld, and posted a brief how-to guide entitled "How I Made a Million in Three Months." It contained a blueprint for the success of Plenty of Fish: Pick a market in which the competition charges money for its service, build a lean operation with a "dead simple" free website, and pay for it using Google AdSense.
By 2006, Plenty of Fish was serving 200 million pages each month, putting it in fifth place in the United States and first in Canada among dating sites. Frind was making amazingly good money, too: $10,000 a day through AdSense. In March of that year, Frind mentioned these facts to Robert Scoble, a popular tech blogger whom he met at a conference in Vancouver. When Scoble wrote about the solo entrepreneur with the ugly website making millions of dollars a year, his readers were in disbelief. At the time, AdSense was seen as a tool for amateurs. It might cover your blogging expenses, but it wouldn't make you rich. Frind's website was also downright ugly. A search-engine-optimization blogger, Jeremy Schoemaker, wrote that Frind was a liar. "Give me a break, dudes," he wrote. "You look so stupid when you buy into his crap."
Frind embraced the controversy. He posted a picture of a check from Google for nearly a million Canadian dollars (or about $800,000) made out to Plenty of Fish. It represented two months' worth of revenue and implied that his site was making $4.8 million a year. But some thought the check was a fake, while others felt that posting it was a crude promotional stunt. "He came out of nowhere, and he didn't seem to give a shit," says David Evans, who writes the blog Online Dating Insider. But the stunt worked. Frind's site was the talk of the blogosphere, driving gobs of new users to the site. Plenty of Fish's growth accelerated dramatically, hitting one billion page views a month by 2007.
By the summer of 2008, with his site moving into first place among dating sites in the U.S. and the U.K., Frind began to wonder about his next step. He rented a 3,700-square-foot suite in Vancouver's Harbour Center, announced he was going to hire 30 employees, and bought a BlackBerry. But the plans were not exactly concrete. By October, Frind's own office was still empty: no furniture, nothing on the walls. He still hadn't figured out how to get e-mail on his cell phone. He had hired three people, not 30.
Frind seems untroubled by this disconnect. He says he leased an office because he was tired of working at home. He assumes he will one day need more employees, but he hasn't figured out what he would do with them. And he is in no hurry. He hasn't even bothered to offer a French language site for the six million French speakers living in Quebec. "I'll get around to doing that eventually," he says.
With all the free time on his hands, why doesn't Frind just start a second company? He says he thinks about that sometimes and has even toyed with creating a free job- listings site but finds the idea stultifying. "Sure, I could do it, but it'd be like watching grass grow compared to this," he says, gesturing at a traffic chart that shows Plenty of Fish's growth over the past few months. "It'd be like" -- he adopts a high-pitched, mocking tone -- " 'Whoop-de-doo, we got 100 visitors today.' Whereas with my site, every day there's another 1,000 or 10,000."
It's hard to know what to make of a guy who works an hour a day, who doesn't travel much, and who doesn't have any hobbies beyond war games somehow fretting about boredom. How is he not bored already?
But if Frind is guilty of a kind of sloth, there is also a wisdom to his passivity. Being ever careful takes serious self-discipline, and an aversion to doing harm can be more valuable than an overeagerness for self-improvement. If nothing else, it's impossible to argue with his success. Frind created his own game and wrote his own rules. As growing legions of lovesick people around the globe search for their perfect mates and advertisers fall over one another to write him ever larger checks, he just kicks back and smiles. And the money rolls in.
Max Chafkin is a senior writer for the magazine. He wrote the November cover story on Kevin Rose, founder of the social news site Digg.