The New Internet Millionaires

New article in press featuring Internet Marketers and Domainers in Canada.com:

He works two hours a day and makes as much as $10 million a year.

That’s why Markus Frind is already considered a dot-com legend at the ripe old age of 29.

Frind is the sole owner of PlentyofFish.com, one of the most popular online dating sites in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K.

Running his matchmaking business from his 83-square-metre apartment in downtown Vancouver, Frind is a one-man show in a business many thought was impossible to do solo.

It’s little wonder, then, that the likes of Guy Kawasaki, a well-known American venture capitalist, author and Forbes columnist, has hailed Frind a personal “hero.”

But Frind is by no means the first British Columbian to become an Internet mogul.

Fellow Vancouverite Kevin Ham has an Internet portfolio of domain names worth an estimated $300 million, while Richmond blogger John Chow found online riches through his popular blog.

Then there’s Vancouver couple Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield, creators of photo-sharing site Flickr, which was sold to Yahoo in 2005 for a rumoured $40 million.

Frind is now making his splash in the online dating industry, taking on heavyweights such as Lavalife.com, which employs no less than five vice-presidents and a string of chief officers.

“The most remarkable thing to me is this one person is able to make up to $10 million a year all by himself. It’s unheard of,” says Joe Tracy, editor of the industry publication Online Dating Magazine.

Frind’s success is largely due to the fact that he’s figured out a way to run his site on autopilot.

While other companies hire reams of programmers and marketers, Frind has just one assistant he recently hired to respond to e-mails.

“Other free sites fail because they can’t control their costs. My costs are pretty much zero,” he says, sitting in his Coal Harbour apartment that’s decorated with Ikea art and mismatched couches.

Growing up on a farm in Hudson’s Hope, 90 kilometres west of Fort St. John on the banks of the Peace River, Frind was always more interested in computers than cattle, says his mother, Erika.

After high school, Frind immediately left his “500-person town” to learn computer programming at the B.C. Institute of Technology in Burnaby.

He graduated in 1999 at the tail end of the dot-com bubble, a period marked by spectacular Internet business failures.

“I was jumping from job to job,” he says. “And every six months, the company would go under.”

Plenty of Fish was launched in 2003 as a pet project for Frind, who was trying to learn a new programming language called ASP.NET. He chose to build an online dating site for its dynamic platform.

From the outset, Plenty of Fish was offered as a free site, unlike most dating sites at the time.

Traffic grew fast, mostly through word of mouth. He decided to sign up with Google AdSense, which supplies web publishers with advertising, to see how far he could take Plenty of Fish.

The first cheque arrived in July 2003.

“I made $1,100 and I thought, if I made this four or five times bigger, I won’t have to work again,” says Frind.

Indeed, Frind doesn’t have to work again. He makes upwards of $5 million a year and is projected to take in $10 million this year, he says.

Revenue comes from banner ads, Google-supplied ads and “affiliate” marketing links that send users to other dating sites.

There are about 660,000 active users — 40,000 of them from B.C.

It ranks in the top three busiest dating sites in Canada, according to comScore Media. According to Hitwise, by some measures — time spent on the site, for example — it ranks No. 1 in the U.S. and U.K.

Its appeal? The site is far from slick — but it’s free and the search engine works better than others, Frind says.

“Everyone lies about what they want, or they don’t know what they want,” he says. “I look at who they’re messaging, not what they’re saying.”

Frind’s program monitors people’s behaviour and tailors search results accordingly. For example, if you’re messaging a lot of people who don’t post pictures of themselves, his program will pick up that quirk and return more results of people in that category.

He’s also a stickler for originality. The program automatically detects lazy users who write a single message, then cut-and-paste to send the message en masse to potential dates.

“People who swear too much get deleted,” Frind adds. “Unoriginal users? Delete.”

Frind, who’s never tried online dating himself and met his girlfriend at his last job, has his eyes set on moving into the Chinese and European markets one day.

He says he barely notices the cash that rolls in and is more interested in growing than making money.

“I’m driven,” he concedes. “It’s just fun winning. I feel like I’m playing a video game. There’s always another level.”

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