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He seems perpetually lost in thought, constantly thinking about and studying the world around him. In a way, he's thinking about the company all the time. F rind 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,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. He rarely visits Hudson's Hope these days. When his parents want to see him, they make the hour drive southward. His fellow engineers seemed to be writing deliberately inscrutable code in order to protect their jobs. 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 , and, two years later, his program discovered a string of 23 prime numbers, the longest ever.
By early , the technology economy in Vancouver had yet to bounce back, and Frind's sixth employer in three years was laying off half its workforce. Worried that he would again find himself unemployed, Frind decided to bolster his qualifications. He would devote a couple of weeks to mastering Microsoft's new tool for building websites, ASP. 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. 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 Avid, which has also courted Plenty of Fish, derives most of its revenue from Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people tag line: The site has 2.
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. 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: The idea came to Frind in , 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 was like, I can beat these guys.
This thought was not exactly new. 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 traffic.
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There are a handful of half-literate posts from early in which Frind asks basic questions, like "I am interested in know how much money sites generate off advertising. Frind knew little about search-engine optimization or online advertising, but he was a quick study. From March to November , his site expanded from 40 members to 10, 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.
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In July, Google introduced a free tool called AdSense, which allowed small companies to automatically sell advertisements and display them on their websites. He quit his job. 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. 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. And advertising networks, especially AdSense, have made it possible, even preferable, for internet entrepreneurs to bootstrap their businesses without hiring a sales force and raising lots of money.
Websites that venture capitalists would have spent tens of millions of dollars building in 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. 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.
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.
Plenty of Fish in the Sea: Lonely Penguin Joins Dating Site To Search For His One True Love
Frind has resisted adding other commonly requested features, such as chatrooms and video profiles, on the same grounds. 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. Frind estimates, based on exit surveys, that the site creates , 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 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.
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This isn't rocket science. O ften, at the end of a long workday, which is to say around noon, Frind plays war games.
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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. Frind's account of his own exploits, published on his blog in under the title "How I Started a Dating Empire," says a lot about his worldview: