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.
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.
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."
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