Ask the expert: How to make a million
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Alex Tew, founder of a www.milliondollarhomepage.com answers readers’ questions on what it takes to be an entrepreneur. The pixel millionaire has big plans - read about his latest business venture here.
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At which point did you think the pixel idea was going to work? Most people, even if they had thought of the idea before, would have quickly dismissed it as a bad idea. So why and when did you think, yes, this might work?
Carson Au, Australia
Alex Tew: From the outset I knew the idea had potential, but it was one of those things that could have gone either way. My thinking was I had nothing to lose (apart from the 50 euros or so it cost to register the domain and setup the hosting). I knew that the idea was quirky enough to create interest, but it has been amazing to see how quickly it took off. The internet is a very powerful medium.
Before you came up with the idea of setting up a website that would make you a million, did you have any real experience of marketing?
Alex Tew: I had experience in running some websites in the past so had some idea about how to create interest for a site. But I think the key here was not necessarily the specific things I did, but more the actual idea itself - it was in many ways a ‘self-marketing’ concept. When I was 18 I did organise some music related events for a previous venture which set me in good stead regarding creating and handling media interest - for instance I organised the world’s first Human Beatbox Convention in 2003 which allowed me to learn a lot about organisation, marketing and branding.
I was just wondering how you managed to create so much press activity in such a short space of time? I recently started working in the communications industry and know how difficult it is to make personal contact with journalists and get them to listen to your story. Would you say the media coverage was one of the keys to your success?
Alex Tew: The crucial thing in creating the media interest was the idea itself: it was unique and quirky enough to stand out. I only had to push the idea a bit in the first few days by sending out a press release - which essentially acted as a catalyst. This interest coupled with traditional word-of-mouth (blogs, e-mail circulars, chat rooms etc.) created a real buzz about the homepage, which in turn created more interest. It ‘went viral’ as some might say.
For anyone starting out and looking to create interest, I believe its important to place more emphasis on the product or service, and if it is intrinsically interesting enough it will capture people’s attention.
How are you going to capitalise on the success of the website? Spin-off merchandise - T-shirts, posters etc?
Alex Tew (pictured right in FT newsroom): There’s the possibility of doing some high-quality poster prints but first I have some copyright issues to address (it should be fine, might take a few months though). I think a jigsaw would be cool too, however I don’t think anyone would really want to wear a t-shirt of the homepage! I am writing an e-book about my experience and I aim to publish that via www.milliondollarhomepage.com prior to my 22nd birthday in June. Aside from those things, I’m already planning my next venture (which will be internet based). My goal, and challenge, is to create a business that is totally unique, with clear revenue streams. It’s a very exciting time, not just for me, but for the internet world in general. There’s finally the bandwidth, userbase and revenue available to support great web ideas.
I’m a 21 year old student in the US and I believe I have brainstormed a great idea for a website (don’t worry it’s not another replica of yours). Do you have any advice for picking a domain name? A lot of the names I want are already taken. I’m considering taking one of the names that I liked but was taken and adding “online” to the end of it or just adding “my” in front. Do you think this is a good idea or should I come up with something completely original even though it might not be nearly as creative and descriptive?
Grant Goodwine, US
Alex Tew: I’m of the mind there are still great names out there yet to be taken - but it’s more about having a idea unique enough to mean there is still a great name available for it. I would personally recommend against adding ‘my’ or ‘online’ to a domain just to have one that’s available - it will mark your site as just another wannabe site as opposed to something truly unique and interesting. Remember, having something not descriptive can work in your favour eventually - take for example Google or Skype - meaningless words that become synonymous with their specific function - some even becoming verbs.
How much money did you spend initially to get this thing started? It does take a bit of financial injection to keep the popularity up until it reaches a solid, worldwide coverage - so I guess you had a PR agent working for you?
Roman Mittermayr, Vienna, Austria
Alex Tew: My initial outlay was around 50 euros I think; it really didn’t cost much to register the domain name and set up some basic hosting. I then re-invested the first $1,000 I made from selling pixels to my friends and family into sending out a press release in order to create more attention. In October I was approached by a talented publicist in the US, Imal Wagner, who suggested I write a book about my experience. I declined the book idea (mainly because I was too busy) but I hired her to help manage all the media attention and she also helped me create fresh interest in the states, which was in fact the last major country to cover my story. I actually went on a media tour in November to do a round of interviews there, and this directly led to more orders and the whole thing continued to grow. The underlying process was simple: the more attention I created, the more pixels I sold, and the more pixels I sold, the more interest my site received. It was a true snowball effect. I probably spent around $40-50,000 US on promoting and maintaining the site.
At 18 years old, I am in a very similar position to yourself, being a young business owner. I hope one day I’ll be in a position to help other young people succeed in business. What would be the one thing you would tell young people who want to start their own business, to help inspire them to do so?
Jamie Harrop, West Yorkshire, UK
Alex Tew: I really believe that being young is the best time to start a business: we are generally free from responsibility (financially or otherwise) and there are more opportunities and support available than ever before for young entrepreneurs. However, what we may lack is experience, and I must admit I’ve learnt so many things in the last 6 months that have perhaps created more value for me in the long-term than the million dollars itself. So it is important to learn from those who have gone before us, and if you can find a mentor, that is a great starting point. The one thing I would tell young people is that you can be successful - it just requires a mixture of hard work, creativity, and possibly above all, persistence.
Alex Tew: I’ve not heard of that site before but I just had a quick look. My initial thought is that you have an interesting idea; although I’m not sure it would be a mass-market, million-dollar success. It looks like more of a niche product that would suit smaller, perhaps quirkier, companies. However, that is my initial thought, I’d need more time to look at it - there may be a gem of a business in there somewhere. That can often happen, people start a business with one idea in mind, only to change course and re-adjust their offering for a larger, more profitable market.
Final comment from Alex Tew: Thanks to everyone for your questions and apologies for not getting around to answering them all. This has been fun. My final comment is ‘good luck’ to all the aspiring entrepreneurs out there - although I’m a great believer in ‘creating your own luck’. There’s something of a perception that the success of The Million Dollar Homepage has been something of an accidental success, and although it has been somewhat unexpected, I actively planned, marketed and ran the venture as a real business. One thing I’ve learnt is that nothing comes for free: although a lot of the value in the success of my site was created through the idea itself, I worked hard for 5 months running and promoting the site and it has taught me that an idea is not enough - execution is equally crucial. Combine a good idea with great execution, and you can be successful. But if it doesn’t work out the first time - keep trying. I’ve been coming up with ideas all my life and trying them out and although I’ve had some small successes in the past, The Million Dollar Homepage was in many ways my ‘breakthrough’. So persistence is the key. I now have the exciting challenge of following up the Million Dollar Homepage with a more traditional business model. I’ve got some cool ideas, internet-based of course, so watch this space!
Pixel millionaire plans new business
Read his first hand account of how he achieved his goal in A million on the dot
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