How To Build A One-Person Million-Dollar Web Business… By Age 17

She grew up in a working-class household near Detroit, with divorced parents who argued about unpaid bills. At 14 years old, she had to ask her mom to buy an $8 domain name for her. Today, at 17, she owns her own 2-story house and is head of a company that earned over $1 million in revenue in 2006, with even more projected for 2007.

Who is she? Ashley Qualls, owner of WhateverLife.com, a MySpace-related website that get over 7 million unique visitors each month. That’s more than Oprah.com and CBS.com. She’s had a multi-page profile done in Fast Company magazine and has been written up in other local publications. I actually saw her story highlighted briefly while watching CNN.

This piqued my interest – I mean, she seems like a good web designer with decent graphic design skills. But good designers are everywhere now, she had to do something special in making her millions. What was it?

She piggy-backed onto the next big thing
Without MySpace, this whole thing might not have happened. I mean, I still do not understand the appeal of MySpace. It’s cluttered. Music plays automatically when you visit someone’s page. The blogging platform is confusing. Who wants to read 100 people saying “Thanks for the add!” or linking to the same 10 blinking images over and over?

She took the initiative with her hobby, and let it grow
The whole thing just started out when she made a few custom MySpace layouts for her friends, and exploded from there. But she could have easily have said “Nah, I’m bored. Let’s go to the mall.” after making one or two. But instead she made layouts for everyone in her high school, and then she took it online.

She knows exactly what her target audience wants. It’s like the movie Big with Tom Hanks, when the 12-year old kid becomes vice-president of a toy company.

She took a risk and went full-time
She actually dropped out of high school during her sophomore year, instead going the GED route and attending community college now.

She’s still thinking big
She’s not just stuck making MySpace layouts forever, either. For one, her templates are compatible with many other social-networking sites besides MySpace. Recently, she hired developers to create an application that lets her users build their own stylized websites. She has an online magazine up and running. Next up, she plans on selling cell-phone wallpapers at $1.99 a pop, so people can extend their custom themes to their phones. She’s the Teen Martha Stewart.

Overall, I would say the best lesson to take from Ashley’s story is that she caught the MySpace wave early and ran with it. I would have totally missed it. Anyone want to tell me what the next big thing will be?

Comments

  1. Like Jonathan, I was not into the whole myspace revolution at first. I refused for a long time not to open an account. However, a months later I realized the network potential this website had. I made connections with so many people and made me realize how many people I really knew. It is great tool for networking. I understand, and find it funny that you pointed out that people leave comments like “thanks for the add.” I’m the type of myspace user that doesn’t really leave comments but I still communicate with people when I need to with their messaging system. It is great for marketing. I’m a leader in a youth organization and myspace allows us to effectively put events together and get people to attend. Please let me know what the next big thing is… PLEASE!

  2. Gotta appreciate those early adopters! To be able to spot something like that at the age of 14 is even more impressive.

  3. nice. I too find it amusing that clutter works for myspace.

    So i guess sometimes it pays to against the grain.

  4. I’m in agreement w/ not getting the “my space” thing.

    Add to that the threat level in the workplace…….(anybody else got employees like me who just can’t NOT visit my space??)……..w/ its reputation for cross-fire infections and questionable content I just don’t get it………AT ALL!!

    Anyway………….I definitely admire these kids. We do still live in a capitalistic market & if I could get people to buy bags of cow crap……….hey……….why not?

  5. I’ve recently discovered FaceBook myself, and have found it infinitely better than MySpace in usability and style. My only problem is that it seems like most people my age (29) never got into it in college, and most friends don’t use it. LinkedIn is also nice for networking.

  6. Hello, fellow MySpace not-understanders. I went to MySpace fairly early on and didn’t understand the point of it (and who is this Tom guy – - how did he find me already when I just signed up?). I went back a good while later and still didn’t get it, especially all the seemingly pointless Thanks For The Add. I mean, who cares? And it’s like, Thanks For The Add x 100,000,000. Something is going on there. Looked again recently – still an enigma. Then I read this article by Danah Boyd and now I understand why I didn’t understand. I knew the reason was that I was too old, but not specifically how being too old left me unable to understand:

    Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace
    http://www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html

    It sounds like a horribly dry and academic article just going by the title, but it’s not. It was so enlightening. If you want to know why there are zillions of Thanks For The Add comments, this explains it. It is such a well-thought out piece and explains the phenomenon from a behavioral development standpoint, at least the youthier use of the site.

    If you’ve been out of high school and even college for long enough, you’ve almost certainly forgotten some of the realities, pressures, rituals, and drivers of those ages. Even then, they were operating beneath the surface. They’re actually more visible from some distance away.

    I guess in short, you don’t understand MySpace because you no longer need what it enables. You did at one time, but in your day you got it through offline channels. It’s not that older people aren’t using it for other reasons at this point, but it blew up on the backs of youth for a reason.

  7. Iam not sure about the next big thing! But if you want to improve your chances to make something big – cater to the middle class people of China and India. Find out what they need, and give them.

    It will take you places.

  8. Picking up on what will be “hot” is not my strong point. In fact I would call it a definite weakness. I still do not get myspace or any of the other sites like that. I believe my wants so so simple that sometimes it effects my ability to see the latest fads coming or even going.

    I am still in awe of people who have cell phones. I can’t get past why someone would have a cell phone, house phone, pay for both and still complain about not being able to get “away from people.” This comes to mind as last night as I was grocery shopping and this guy had to call his wife for help chosing between chicken or beef frozen fajitas.

    Honestly, I never saw digital cameras exploding as they have either.
    I just do not have that foresight. A major weakness I know.

    saladdin

  9. Yes, I’d say that FaceBook is the preferred networking site for college students, however many also use MySpace. In my opinion, there are many advantages and disadvantages to having an account. I showed my parents some of my old high school friends’ profiles (and pictures). It was pretty funny to see their reactions to all the drinking pictures of people who I went to middle school and high school with.

  10. The problem I have with all these social networking site is that all these people now have slim chances to go into public service because of what people can dig up. :)

  11. OK, big deal. MySpace is for kids age 5-20 plus some pedophiles, FaceBook is for kids 18-22 plus some Ph.D and postdoc students who can’t find friends in real world.

    What we don’t know is whether these demographic will still using this mediums when they grow out of the age and entering society to find real people.

  12. Beware, my anti-virus software warned me about a “Bloodhound.Exploit.109″ security risk on Ashley’s site which is linked to in the OP.

  13. ARZ,
    I agree in most part but as the demographic you mentioned out grows facebook or myspace there are others waiting to take their place in that coveted demographic. For every 22 year old out-growing myspace there is another 14 year old creating a profile. It’s a constant never ending cycle of the young replacing the old.

    saladdin

  14. Please explain the phrase “working-class family”.

  15. The next big thing is Facebook.

    It’s already pretty big, but I’m willing to bet it’s going to get a lot bigger before it flattens out.

  16. Next big thing — going “green”, sustainable, organic. Hopefully it isn’t just a trend but at the rate it’s expanding, I can’t help but wonder when it’ll blow over…

  17. Actually Web Guy’s probably right about Facebook being TNBT. Let’s say that I have some money on that being the case, but from a Developer’s standpoint, Facebook actually has the potential to monetize.w

    Not only do you have have custom apps, but the app developers can help fund their server costs with ads. So you can develop the next big Facebook app and make money off it, just like making a good movie and posting it on Revver.

  18. I love stories like this. It’s great to see that not all of my generation will stand by the wayside and feel sorry for themselves. I can only hope that my hobbies will yield such results!

  19. Ted Valentine says:

    I’m hearing the next big thing is flashing your kitty and DUI.

  20. Coincidentally, the CAPTCHA word is “retire”. Reading about her story sounds like she will either be the next Bill Gates or get burned out and homeless by 25.

    I assume she owns her home free and clear, and didn’t get a fancy mortgage and risk losing it. I also hope that being a high school drop-out and no plans to further her [classroom] education, that she is saving money like a miser. Sooner or later the MySpace fad will run its course and not everyone will want to pay $2+ for a cell phone wallpaper, and she’ll have nothing to fall back on.

    Then again, like Cortez burning his ships upon arrival to the New World, she has motivation to find the next brand new thing since she doesn’t have an education, other than the school of hard knocks, to fall back on.

  21. I keep hearing that Spongebob episode in my head where Mr. Krabs wakes up and the music playing is “You’re Old!”. I loved that article, by the way, Eric, so informative. Now I can kind of know what my nieces and nephews are talking about. But it was really illuminating because the success of this site is closely related to teens not having any places to hang out alone anymore. They come from school and aren’t allowed just to run down to the park or the roller rink, or even the mall alone. My friends and I used to hang out in a wooded spot near our houses — and like the article said, no one today would allow any of that. So they ended up creating their own world where they can hang out together – mostly without parents – whenever they want, late at night, wherever they get dragged to by parents. That is so interesting to me. Not that we wouldn’t have used e-mail and stuff when I was a kid, but probably not so much of these public forums because we were actually out-and-about by ourselves. By the time I was 14, I was allowed to go practically anywhere by myself (home by curfew). There was no need to reach out through the internet connections and what not. I can totally understand the need to be really hooked in now for a kid. I didn’t really know what they were getting out of it until now.

  22. Facebook is the equivalent of the Mac, and Myspace is a virus laden Windows.

    Going Green has been the “next big thing” for about a decade.

    The only problem i see with social networking sites is they are a closed community, like AOL or Compuserve. Remember them? The purpose of the internet is openness. Facebook is a clever reversion.

    Twitter and Twitter like things are on the idea of the next big thing.

  23. Twitterings great, but like the old chat-rooms, you can have too many followers, then you can’t keep up.

    (Still love it though)

    Keep on ‘TWITTERIN’ y’all.

    Pete.

  24. I agree that things like Twitter are on the wave of the next big thing. Facebook is cleaner and more stripped down, and people are liking that more as ‘next-big-thingish-ness’. I think things are going more short form, more multi-integrative across the board of websites and web 2.0 apps. Friendfeed is a new site that allows you to add ‘friends’ based on all their updateable RSS feeds (Flickr, Blogger, etc). Tumblr, a short form blogging site that is simple and AWESOME, is freakin’ great and may be a step to ‘that next big thing’.

  25. I’m not sure what the next big thing is either…I use facebook and hi5 as well as myspace. Myspace seems to be good for my photography and the techno blogs I post; facebook seems to be good for friends; while hi5 is a marketing ‘store.’ I have an adult friendfinder site and I market it to my over 1500 friends and I have been pretty successful. Go figure. I’m just trying to tap into a market.

  26. It’s great to read stories like this, but I also worry about what she’ll be doing years from now. It really will depend on what type of people she has surrounding her and guiding her into an adult. It’s good that she’s made millions but still went the GED and community college route (as opposed to just staying home with no education), but most 17 year olds probably don’t know how to handle that much money. The good news for her is that she’ll have a ton of experience at a young age to be able to keep her momentum going.

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