It feels like a million dollars
A student in Wiltshire figures out how to expand a few pixels into a major windfall.
For over five weeks, Alex Tew has been celebrating as if it were 1999 now. He has a good reason, or more accurately, 320,300 green and excellent reasons to celebrate and his hand is still outstretched. If the hype, or buzz or enthusiasm or any other word used since early September to describe the latest Internet craze that Tew created out of nothing, lasts, then pretty soon he will have another equally fine 679,700 green reasons to celebrate.
Tew, a 21-year-old guy from Cricklade in Wiltshire, Great Britain, did not develop a new technology or ingenious commercial electronic platform, and he isn't in the business of on-line gambling or pornography. However, last summer an idea suddenly popped into his head. A simple and amazing idea. In late August, with a background story that may or not be true, but which you can't help but love, Tew released the Milliondollarhomepage.com.
According to Tew, who at the time was about to begin his college studies, the financial troubles encountered by his brother, who began studying several years ago, made him wonder how it was possible to come out of college without a degree and with large loan debts.
The idea Tew came up with is frustrating in its genius. He acquired the catchy but not very friendly domain name and opened a site that he divided into a matrix of 10,000 small squares. The size of each square is 100 pixels (10x10) and in total there are 1,000,000 pixels on the home page. The deal Tew offers is simple: whoever pays $100 per square (or one dollar per pixel, it sounds cheaper) will in return receive a tiny bit of real estate on the site. The happy buyer can fill his square in any way he wants, so long as it is in Jpeg or GIF format (without animation), and then transform the square into a hyperlink to any site he chooses, so long as it is not hate-mongering, racist, pornographic or fraudulent and the like.
Anyone can buy adjacent squares at the same price per square, depending on availability, and thereby highlight his message in comparison to others. Tew agrees to keep the site running for at least five years.
Survival of the fittest
Journalist Ami Ben Basat (Masa Aher, Globes) was one of the first to grasp the potential of the "million dollar site" as a venture, a brilliant idea and mini lab of Internet evolution. In early September, when the site still looked like an unplowed field with patches of colorful squares that saved it from looking pathetic, Ben Basat bought a square on the site for $100, posted a small icon which is hard to see and linked it to "Hakatzeh," the excellent blog he runs on the Reshimot site (http://www.notes.co.il/benbasat). "I read about the Alex's site on one of the blogs I read regularly and right after I saw it, it excited me," he relates. "I liked the idea very much, which also was accompanied by a buzz. Making money on the Internet is a still an open and not so obvious matter. This guy found an interesting way. As a rule, `the free spirit' of the Internet is created (and maintained) by people like this Englishman, and I thought they should be encouraged." Ben Basat reported on his purchase in a blog posting he devoted to the site and the emerging phenomenon (at the time the posting was publicized, Tew had sold only $7,000 in pixels), and was surprised to receive belittling reactions. One person, "Azi," added a link to the grayish icon that Ben Basat paid $100 for and asked, "You paid $100 for this??? Can you explain why?" After Ben Basat's explanation, "Azi" wrote with a virtual nod of his head: "Umm. I stand corrected, but I can suggest several wonderful places that are equally in need of your generosity, perhaps even more so - but it's your money. You do with it what you want, of course."
"Noga" was less polite: "Exalted ideas that will advance the world???" she wrote in response to Ben Basat's post. "How? Why? Because he [Alex Tew - S.S.] shows that fools don't have to be replaced but can live simultaneously and be worth a million dollars to someone? That is, after all, one of the principles of capitalism."
In the weeks after Ben Basat's first post, the million-dollar site underwent a total makeover. The isolated squares of another time that twinkled in the empty virtual space like diamonds on a bed of unspoiled sand, just about disappeared. Now, it's hard for the eye to focus on one ad or another because there are so many colorful ads densely packed together. At the same time, of course, Tew's wallet filled up with more and more dollars. The million-dollar target, which had seemed fantastical in the first week or two after the site went on-line, now seemed within reach.
"Today," says Ben Basat, "the `ads' meet the evolutionary test on two counts. In order to survive, or in other words attract the surfer's attention, they have to compete with location, color, shape and size and therefore the field has become an amazing cacophony of colors and shapes. To me it really looks like biological evolution where the basic tenet of survival of the fittest prevails. My square, for example, almost got lost on the site at a very early stage, but on the other hand, it is in close proximity to a large, red `skyscraper,' so whoever is drawn to that might also get curious and click on me."
And it turns out that quite a few people are clicking. Ben Basat has no way of seeing where surfers were before they entered his blog on Reshimot, but he reports an increase of 400 percent in the number of visits to "Hakatzeh" since he got a single square on the milliondollarhomepage.com site.
A heart and a flag
Ben Basat is unusual because he had no profit motive when he bought his 100 pixels around a month ago. But "the success stories" published on Tew's site, such as personal testimonies, indicate that the young Briton is not the only celebrating as a result of the project's success.
"I heard about the site for the first time around two-three weeks ago from people in our technology company," says Smadar Landau, the CEO of the "Capiyot" matchmaking site, which bought eight squares on the milliondollarhomepage.com site for $800. "From the beginning, I thought it was brilliant. The guy who created it is someone who really knows how to think outside the box and he understands the dynamics of Internet consumers. It's one of the few times that I'm willing to say out loud that I'm jealous. It's a project that really stimulates the imagination. The life cycle of the site will, of course, be limited as is the case with gimmicks, but that doesn't mean he can't make a million dollars."
Landau divided her Internet purchase into two parts. In four squares that create a larger square she place the logo of her site (a pink heart against a yellow backdrop); in an identical construction in a slightly more central location on the site, she posted a tiny Israeli flag made of 400 pixels. The two ads lead to the same URL on the site, but Landau can see which one the surfer on milliondollarhomepage.com clicked on.
"You can probably guess which ad brought in more surfers," says Landau with a chuckle. "In January we are planning to take the site to the United States and our focus will be the Jewish market. It's clear to me that the first click of every Jew or Israeli who enters the million dollar site will be on the flag, there's no doubt about it."
Even now, borne on the huge Internet buzz generated by Tew's site, Landau sees a yield on the investment. "I've never advertised for so little money and generated so much traffic for my site," she says. According to her, on an average day, around 5,000 surfers visit Capiyot by clicking on the pixels she bought on the milliondollarhomepage.com site. "What's nice here?" Landau asks rhetorically and immediately answers, "The fact that someone is drawing in an entire market. He is drawing in a wave of sites that profit along with him. Usually, the entrepreneur clips the coupon at the end of the process, but here, the clients also benefit and it's all at an amazing cost/benefit ratio."
Landau does note that compared to regular advertising banners, which she says brings in one client who signs up for Kafiyot out of ten surfers who click on it, among the surfers who get to her via milliondollarhomepage.com the ration is one out of 75, but that's still an outrageous statistic," she concludes. "One of our biggest and best surprises for the new year."
One million shekels
Buying ads on Alex Tew's site, of course, is not the only way people have found to join in the success. In recent weeks, copycat sites have appeared that try to apply Tew's original innovative idea using the same method, sometimes with slight variations.
Alongside sites such as Million Euro and Million Franc, Israeli versions have also appeared such as Milliondollarhomepage.co.il and Millonshekel.com and Millionshekelsite.co.il. Eyal Ben Israel and his girlfriend, Hila Taibi, computer science students, aged 24 and 23, at Bar-Ilan University, officially launched Milliondollarhomepage.co.il last Thursday. So far the site has sold four squares to the owners of a transportation company who are also relatives and "at this very time," they report, they will be selling additional squares on it.
Ben Israel is aware of the possible criticism that may surface that he stole the idea, but is not worried. "We went with something a little different because we included a search engine on the site and we also plan to build a site index on it. We asked ourselves if it's legal to do what we did and as soon as we decided that it was, we decided to go for it. I think it's a compliment to Alex. Anyone who calls me a copycat doesn't have to advertise with me."
But why not chose a slightly different design? A matrix with rounded edges instead of squared corners, for example?
"We thought about it. But Alex simply found the ultimate matrix. With a circle, you lose 33 percent of the space."