Not long ago, Philip Brandes, 26, could have been a shiny-happy poster boy for the dot-com entrepreneurial spirit.
The Montreal native started his first company while he was still an undergrad at the University of California at Santa Barbara, studying economics and business. As a college graduation present, his parents gave him money to invest in the stock market; instead he used the gift to finance an online fax product, which he later sold to eSynch. (What pluck!) With a bio like Michael Dell's and a physical resemblance to Matthew Perry, he tools around the Bay Area in a new Lincoln Navigator SUV, wearing Dr. Martens and a TAG Heuer watch.
But we all know what's been happening to the Philip Brandeses of the world over the past year.
When the last company Brandes invested in and worked for went out of business in August 2000, he found himself out of a job -- "a start-up guy" at a time when start-ups weren't starting.
But this whole dot-com downturn business hasn't snuffed out Brandes' conviction that there's money to be made online. These days he's pursuing a new entrepreneurial scheme: teaching other out-of-work dot-commers to become online pornographers.
Brandes is now the self-appointed "dean" of a fledgling institution of online higher learning called the Adult Webmaster School. For $140 tuition, Brandes and his business partner, Morgan McNerney, 26 -- a guy he went to high school with in Newport Beach, Calif. -- teach wannabe online pornographers how to make a buck shilling T&A over the Net.
The school instructs webmasters on how to create "thumbnail gallery pages" -- collections of pornographic images that feature an ad for a pay porn site. If visitors to the page click through to the pay site and join, the adult webmaster makes a commission. To get eyeballs to their pages, the webmasters swap links with thumbnail gallery posts (TGPs), like this one, which act as clearinghouses for hundreds of links. He says this business can bring in $1,000 a week -- but as with everything else in the porn industry, it's impossible to say whether that's just another come-on.
Over coffee, Brandes explained how he has recast himself from dot-com to dot-sex.
How did you get into the business?
In seventh grade, I would sell online reports to my friends -- e-commerce back when there wasn't e-commerce. I got my first computer when I was 5.
This is incriminating, but people would need book reports, and -- this is back before it was AOL, it was called Applelink then -- they had this sort of online encyclopedia that I would borrow from heavily for five- or 10-page reports. So I knew somewhere online there was a real business in the future.
But how did you get into the online porn business?
When the company I was with folded last August, that's sort of when everything started going downhill in this whole industry. So I bummed around for a couple of months not knowing what the heck I wanted to do.
I came up here [to the Bay Area] a few times to look for jobs, and I realized that, hey, it's not going to happen. I realized I was in trouble. And I was looking at my friends, too, and they were sort of in the same situation. They were getting laid off from their regular jobs.
But I have a friend out here that I went to high school with, kind of a surfer kid, and he said, "You should do what I'm doing." He was kind of a slacker type and he had been doing [online porn] since 1995. He had never done super-well with it, but he made pretty good money.
Did you ever think you'd end up in the porn business?
I come from a pretty conservative family. I never even thought about any of this. I never even considered it because it does have a sort of bad rap. My family is well-known in the community. I can just see, "Hey, Jim. I heard your son is doing porn." [Laughs]
I guess this is as good a way to tell them as any. But -- my poor mom -- my uncle [started operating a porn] pay site about three years ago. It's huge. He's back in Montreal, and he does well. If my parents knew that I was doing this ...
What do you tell your parents you're doing?
Wireless something or other. I'm sure they're going to find out soon enough.
But the more I watched my friend work on his adult site, the more I realized that it's a very interesting business. It's very complex. You have a lot of highly skilled people who are excellent Web designers in this business, excellent marketing people.
Sex is the No. 1 thing on the Internet, and adult people have always been one step ahead of the search engines, the way to spam things, the way to market things. You'll notice that every site now, Yahoo and everyone, pops up windows. Well, guess where that was developed? In our industry, we were responsible for a lot of innovations. People have so much money in our industry, we put a lot of that money back into technology and advertising so that we can market better.
But really, it's not that hard. Everyone is looking for [online porn]. It's just a matter of putting yourself out there. If you go to Metaspy, it watches what people are searching for on the search engines and it gives you a list of 10 words that people are typing in. Three of those words on every refresh, every five seconds, are adult-related. It's No. 1.
Talk about job security. Like I said, you can't worry about that when you're dealing with the No. 1 industry on the Internet.
What are you teaching people in your school?
The course teaches you how to design a gallery -- basically a Web page full of pictures. There are certain sites out there that list your site if you go through a certain procedure and you build your site right. And those sites specialize in getting tons of people -- in the millions, millions of people a day. Those sites are called TGPs -- thumbnail gallery posts. We teach students which TGPs are the best ones and how to be able to look at which of your sites are doing well and sort of optimize them to increase your rate of people signing up.
There are 10 or 20 TGPs that probably dominate in the field. And they attract, probably combined, 20 to 30 million people, and if you get your link on their site up pretty high you get the people.
How exactly do these sites you build make money?
I'm basically an advertiser. When people go to an ad on one of my sites and sign up for membership to a pay site, I get paid a commission. So I get to be creative. There are two ways to get commissions. There's a flat rate -- usually about $35 or $40 per person. So they'll either pay you $35 a person or they'll pay you for how long they're a member, each month -- it will be like $12 a month.
How do you know that you aren't getting ripped off by the pay site?
You don't. There's no way for us webmasters to track, because the people go to the site and sign up with their credit cards. We don't know, which is why you go with the sites that have been in this business for a long time.
How do you get the pictures?
You either do them yourself or you purchase them. There are sites out there that specialize in selling pictures. You put your credit card in and you download a Zip file full of pictures, and you get the license to use them.
Why did you decide to teach a course about it?
When I started doing it, I bought a brand-new Lincoln Navigator in about two weeks. And so my friends are going, "What's going on? I thought you didn't have a job?" So I told them, and they just begged me to teach them how. So I did. Then I figured I'd build a site with my partner who taught me, my friend, and we sat down and wrote a whole course guide, a manual and video tutorials.
Then we started advertising on these porn sites -- "Get paid to look at porn!" -- infomercial-style. And we posted on craigslist. Here's an interesting thing about it ...
For the craigslist post, nine out of 10 people responding were women. I thought our market was the sort of Maxim-reading, stereotypical, college frat guy male -- "Gosh, I can get paid $1,000 a week to look at hot chicks? Are you kidding me?" -- but I was wrong. These are mostly women who are e-mailing me saying, "I want to do that."
Actually, one-third of the e-mails I get are, "How do I become a porn star?" And one-third are, "How do I become a photographer to shoot them?"
So if there's so much money in this, why aren't you just an adult webmaster? Why are you teaching other people how to do it?
It sounds kind of lame, but I'm into spreading the wealth a bit.
I have a good skill, and I know how to do it, and I see all these people like myself who are sitting there, just kind of like bummed. There are all these bars in North Beach and you see a lot of the techie guys, and they kind of just sit there and drink.
Plus, for our next venture we actually want to become one of those pay sites. And so it's an interesting fit because these pay sites are always looking for new webmasters and so we're going to have sort of a feeder program. The school will be a feeder program.
Who are your students?
We are targeting people who have at least some skills -- former dot-com employees, people who are familiar with computers. If they've had Web experience and marketing experience, it's a perfect transition. But they are as a whole very skeptical these days of scams, so they're worried about signing up online.
We're thinking of doing an offline class as a bricks-and-mortar equivalent, something tangible to see, "OK, this guy's legit." If you go to my site, I have to admit it sounds like an informercial on the front -- "Make more money! One hour a day! -- but it's true, it really is.
Will we have a physical campus? It's possible. I think there is enough need out there that it would be great to do it. We'll start probably offering a class in Berkeley -- I can just see that, "Adult Webmastering 101," in your school guide for your college.
How much do you work a day?
I work from 10 p.m. until 11 p.m. at night. The next morning I check my statistics to find out how much money I'm making, and the rest of the day I don't.
Do you think that you would go back to doing an ordinary company outside of this industry?
Probably not. I've been bitten by the bug. Yeah. What I love the most about it is it gives me freedom during the day. I work for an hour. I can go read and rest and go hang out. I wasn't a person to sit in a cubicle all day like Dilbert. San Francisco -- I moved up here -- it's a beautiful place, I want to go out and explore. I'm not going to sit and work all day.
What I didn't like about being an entrepreneur in the typical dot-com world is you have to be very political. You meet people and there's a protocol. Especially in the dot-com world if you're very young compared to the CEO with the gray hair. You can't say what you think. You can't do what you feel like doing. Sometimes you don't have the leeway to [pursue] your ideas. This gives you a chance to be who you want to be, and be whoever you are.
People in this industry are genuine. They're not fake. They tell you what they think. They're not bound by the political correctness down the hall. They like to have great parties.
What kind of parties do they have?
Well, I'm sure you can imagine, but there is something called a photo shoot party. Instead of bringing beer, you bring a camera.
That's the best content -- exclusive. The fresher and more exclusive the pictures you're using, the better. Because you know how the Internet is; a picture gets out like a song gets out on Napster or whatever, and everyone starts using it.
Have you ever been to one of those parties?
No, this is actually all new to me. But I'm going to Vegas to the adult online trade show convention this weekend, where there will be one.
So, why is this a good thing for these laid-off dot-commers?
Quite frankly, I don't think they're going to find jobs. If you look in the newspaper, 1,500 laid off here, 2,000 laid off here, 5,000 laid off here. Nortel. Stocks getting delisted from NASDAQ.
I'm surprised that the adult business is becoming more and more mainstream. I guess -- and this is a bad thing to say -- desperate times require desperate measures. Maybe it's not desperate. I came to a point where I thought, Hey, do I want to make less money, and be miserable being in a cubicle or do I want to have time to enjoy myself?
My biggest job now is convincing people that this is not a scam. Right now we're charging $140; we're still playing with prices. But we found that if it's too low people will think it's a scam, and if it's too high people just can't afford it.