Value Added: Venture-ing On The Web

Here's Tom Heath's latest column on Washington's entrepreneurial set:


Matt Silverman is a fifth-year student at George Washington University, where he will graduate with a master's degree in information systems this December. He is a Web geek. He gets his news from digg.com, slashdot.org, reddit.com and The Drudge Report.

He is an entrepreneur. Silverman belongs to the school's Web ventures club and sprinkles his conversation with phrases like "social media optimization" and "search engine optimization." He admires Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as well as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

I wish I had his entrepreneurial drive when I was 22.

Silverman has several Web-based ventures, including a site focusing on Chipotle Mexican Grill and another site that aggregates videos. He also earns money designing Web pages for businesses. His sites don't make a ton of money. They earn "somewhere in the low five figures," which is enough to pay the rent, take his girlfriend in New York City out and give him some walk-around cash.

Not bad. I was still asking my parents for money when I was his age.

Silverman provides an instructive lesson for young entrepreneurs who want to launch startups and begin careers in the online world. Even 50-somethings like me can learn from him.

"You have to understand your audience and why the Web sites they visit are so successful. What do those sites do? What will make people come back to your Web site? That's very difficult to do," he said. "You have to have initial traffic and social networking channels. You need to be a reader of sites and understand how to drive people to your content."

Silverman's been living on the Web since he built his first Web page as an eighth grader in Evanston, Ill., one of Chicago's northern suburbs. He was 14 and it was called Matt's Web page, and he told his friends what he liked about The Simpson television show and his favorite music. It was hosted by the Yahoo Geocities site, which was one of the early publishers of personal web pages. As a high school student, he often ate at Chipotle. But when he tried to find out how many calories were in his burrito, it wasn't easy.

That's when he started chipotlefan.com.

"I made it my senior year in high school," said the business school student. "I was interested in the calories and couldn't get info easily on the Chipotle company Web site. So I built a Web site and put a calculator on the site."

Chipotlefan.com gets about 3,400 unique visitors a day, runs on its own and has ads from Google, Amazon.com and other sources. In addition to finding out how many calories there are in that tortilla you just ate, you can share Chipotle-cloned recipes and have a discussion on the latest company products. You can even build your own image of a burrito.

Hmmm.

Silverman said he averages a couple of hundred dollars a week from the ads on the site.

"Chipoltefan runs itself," he says.

Last summer, he had an idea to pick the best videos from YouTube, Metacafe and Collegehumor.com -- all busy video sites - -and put the most popular ones on a single site. He went to GoDaddy.com, paid $9 for a domain name and launched "BestViral.com," He has spent around $2,400 creating the site.

BestViral.com draws around 1,200 unique visitors a day and makes money. Not a lot of money, but it makes money. Last December, BestViral.com's traffic spiked to 2.5 million when viewers flocked to a video about dirty hotel room glasses by Fox News. Silverman made a bunch of money on all those page views.

"My site embeds videos from other sites. It automatically crawls to the sites and grabs the top viewed videos," he said, adding that he spends about 45 minutes a day updating BestViral.

"You can see what is generating buzz around the Internet."

Here is the best part. Silverman's programmer for BestViral lives in Russia. He found him at GetAFreelancer.com, a Web site that links job seekers with employers. Talk about outsourcing

"I found him for a separate small project and it worked so well that I started paying him $10 an hour," Silverman said. "Now he is making $12 an hour, which is pretty good for Russia."

Silverman makes enough from BestViral.com to spend $300 on advertising through Google's Adwords program which helps drive more traffic to his site.

Silverman also has a business called MattSilv.com, where he does Web page design and programming. He is currently doing some work for a quick service salad restaurant in New York called Just Salad.

He wants to work for Google's New York City office when he graduates and create online products for them.

I asked him what advice he would give other young people who want to get started in the growing Web industry, which is to the 21st century what steel production was to the late 19th century.

"I would say one of the most important things is if you see something you like, just research it. I look at the best of the best sites and what they do and ask myself how I can provide something that's like it with value added," said Silverman. "I was always visiting Break.com where I would watch videos to satisfy this daily urge to see new content. That's what a lot of sites have -- fresh content that helps drive visitors every day."

By Dan Beyers  |  July 22, 2008; 5:52 PM ET  | Category:  Value Added
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Comments

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Good read and i have visited the chipotle site... unfortunately, it's why i don't go to Chipotle anymore after i learned how fat i was getting... sometimes things are better left unsaid.

Posted by: getting bigger | July 22, 2008 6:04 PM

Chipotle may be high in calories, but by removing just the Tortilla you can take about 300 calories out of your meal. It's not something you should eat every day, but it is always okay to indulge a few times a month ;)

Posted by: TheMoreYouKnow | July 22, 2008 6:37 PM

I only eat Chipotle on days that end in Y. Sounds like an interesting young man with a bright future. Best of luck with Google or wherever you end up!

Posted by: I <3 Chipotle | July 22, 2008 9:59 PM

IT MAY TASTE GOOD, BUT I CAN'T AFFORD THE CALORIES NOR ANOTHER BATHING SUIT.

Posted by: BOBBIE | July 22, 2008 10:09 PM

Tom - very cool article and I love the fact that you're interested in entrepreneurs of all ages and business backgrounds - this kid is fantastic and inspiring and shows that even in a "possible recession" there are still lots of ways for people to build their own businesses and make good cash. For the upcoming generation, the Internet truly is their oyster. Love it. And, go G-Dub!

Posted by: mezz | July 22, 2008 11:05 PM

That's my roommate, entrepreneur for the 21st century. Matt is still full-time at school and spends half his waking hours on Chinatown buses to New York City; just wait until he's able to dedicate more than a few hours a week to "social media optimization." I'm going to buy my MattSilv stock early.

Posted by: Josh | July 22, 2008 11:15 PM

Excellent article. Matt is just getting started. I have no doubt that you'll be seeing many more great companies and web services from him in the near future. GW University is lucky to have such an ambitious alumnus.

Posted by: Sam | July 22, 2008 11:19 PM

I think Chipotlefan's forum sucks . . . very hard to read and keep up with new posts . . . plus all kinds of spam there. Why don't you try to fix it to make it more user friendly "wonderboy?"

Posted by: Chipotle Eater | July 23, 2008 3:57 AM

Great story.

Posted by: PSC | July 23, 2008 9:10 AM

Chipotle Eater,

If you are logged in when visiting, the Chipotle Fan forums will denote which posts have been created since you last read the forum.

As for the spam, I delete it at least once each week, if not more often. It's hard to compete with spam robots, but a captcha image for the sign up page should solve the problem, and it is already in the works.

If you have any more specific, or constructive, feedback about the forums please feel free to use the contact page on ChipotleFan.com to reach me.

Posted by: "wonderboy" | July 23, 2008 9:46 AM

I LOVE chipolte and love the fact that you can get the calorie count!

Posted by: ALD | July 23, 2008 9:55 AM

Another good one Tom, its interesting to see these young kids take their ideas to market, this is an excellent idea and he appears extremely grounded but also driven at the same time - the bubble bursters from years past could learn a lesson from him.

Posted by: Tony Keller | July 23, 2008 10:07 AM

Great article Tom. I particularly like Matt's advice on researching what you like and then adding value to it. Many forget this fundamental step in product development.

All businesses, web based or not, will benefit from Matt's understanding of using other people's ideas as a starting point and developing it further to create a differentiated offering.

I look forward to the next post.

Posted by: Liz | July 23, 2008 11:55 AM

Another great perspective Tom, we continue to embrace the popularity of new technology innovators on this side of the country. Keep it up.

Posted by: Zenoss | July 23, 2008 12:52 PM

Gigabyte...

Posted by: Adam | July 23, 2008 1:51 PM

Is it just me or does this college student/entrepreneur sound like a Facebook.com success story waiting to happen?

Way to go, Matt! Keep up the good work. And at the end of the day, that's what it's about: WORK and research and edging ahead of the pack.

Posted by: SB | July 23, 2008 4:16 PM

This jokesmith is the best. If only he could program me a poker bot.

Posted by: Scott | July 24, 2008 12:46 AM

Great Job Matt. You are already off to a great start.

I don't think they can teach this stuff in a classroom, whatever it is, you seem to have it.

Posted by: Matt | July 24, 2008 9:20 AM

good job Tom, very intersting story. keep up the good work. Good luck

Posted by: Farhat/ Subway | July 24, 2008 4:06 PM

Computers and the Internet are still a mystery to me... but what great opportunities for young people like Matt. This is a good story of our times! While Matt is making in the low five figures, I was making $1.00 an hour writing for the college news bureau.

Posted by: Polly Elmore | July 29, 2008 7:42 AM

Matt's on the brink of success. I can't wait to see what develops for this young entrepreneur. Keep up the great work, Matt!

Posted by: !!! | July 31, 2008 10:06 AM

Keep up the good work Matt! Hope to see more innovation from you. Mark Zuckerberg II in the making :)

Posted by: Jayesh - GWU | August 1, 2008 11:00 AM

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