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Hooking Up the World

Hooking Up the World

December 20, 2006
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" Happiness is a job that doesn't require an alarm clock. "

The American legend of the Midwestern farm boy who goes west and makes good is alive and well in Silicon Valley. Andrew Conru, founder and CEO of FriendFinder.com, AdultFriendFinder and a handful of other social networking sites, is that rarest of creatures: someone who, by 38, not only realized most of his tech dreams but rode out the bursting of the Internet bubble instead of getting splattered by it.

Much of Conru's success comes from relationships within the adult industry, beginning 10 years ago with AdultFriendFinder, his effort to create a "clean, well-lighted place" on the Internet in which people could express their sexual desires and explore connections openly. Today AdultFriendFinder is one of the top affiliate program on the web, attracting about 70,000 new members a day.

But behind the high life he has now attained is a childhood spent with parents who had him digging ditches and baling hay while encouraging creativity and academic excellence, teen years learning the basics of computer programming and a lifetime of using early lessons to good effect as an entrepreneur.

A Rural Boy
Conru grew up in rural areas of northern Indiana, the son of two steelworkers who maintained a small farm. His first business was selling vegetables for the family garden door-to-door, where he learned to serve the needs of the customer. "People didn't want the five-pound zucchini, no matter how impressed I was about the size," he told GoFuckYourself.com in a 2005 Ambush Interview.

Conru started writing computer programs while still in elementary school; one of his first games was a Bible quiz, a way of thanking his mother for the purchase of a Commodore 64. At high school in Michigan City, Conru ran track and participated in theater, and he held jobs at a mink ranch, Kmart's shoe department and a lumberyard.

"Happiness is a job that doesn't require an alarm clock," he said.

Conru's parents encouraged their son's interest in computers, math and engineering and his pursuit of higher education.

"They were quite proud of the fact that I was rising above the typical career path in our community," he said. Conru's brother, an art dealer and musician, and his sister, a nurse practitioner, also hold advanced degrees.

Conru remained a Hoosier for his undergraduate years at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, where he majored in chemical engineering and economics.

"I always had a head for business," Conru said. "While I enjoyed the technical aspects of my studies, I was often more interested in the practical uses of the technologies and the business issues needed to create them."

He bought a four-bedroom house in Terre Haute and rented rooms to cover the loan payment, mostly to international graduate students. This gave him exposure to the values and customs of people from different cultures, and, as a landlord, he learned how to budget, manage people and plan for contingencies.

By the time Conru graduated from Rose-Hulman, he had worked on several projects for General Motors — experiences that convinced him not to work for a mega-manufacturer once out of school — and spent time studying robotics in a master's program at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. But it was as a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University that Conru found his calling.

Mastering the Web
At Stanford, Conru worked in the Center for Design Research, which in early 1993 became one of the first educational institutions to put a website on the Internet. "It was so early that nobody knew what the Internet could do," Conru said, adding that the Internet contained only a few dozen sites then and it was possible to surf the entire Internet overnight. He was fascinated by the Internet's ability to connect people anywhere instantly and began to look for ways to apply the technology.

Through contacts in the computer business, Conru received a commission from a Bay Area governmental body to build a community website. With that $8,000 contract, he started a website development company called Internet Media Services in May 1993.

"People would call us and ask, 'Are you the Internet?'" Conru said. They weren't, but Conru and partners Melissa Regan and John Celestian were early evangelists for the web.

Serving as CEO and key software developer for IMS and supervising 15 employees, Conru soon became weary of creating corporate sites and began developing sites for himself, beginning with Dine.com, a site that allowed people to rank local restaurants and post reviews. Eventually, Dine.com began to organize dinners at which site participants could meet and enjoy themselves together.

Conru noticed that the people who came to these dinners were educated, witty, had interesting careers and, moreover, were often single and looking to meet new people. When he realized that many Dine.com participants were including information about themselves along with their restaurant reviews, he created WebPersonals, the first online dating site. It became a popular site on the early Internet, and it remains the only site Conru has ever sold.

Unhappy with the profit margin, Conru left IMS in early 1995 to start two other companies: one, W3.COM, that would develop business software to track site visitors, handle registration and shopping cart functions and customize content; and another, Focalink, that introduced the idea of centralizing ad delivery and management across different websites. Conru left Focalink over disagreements with the group that capitalized it but went on to write, with Sean Treichler, the first centralized ad server, AdOptimizer.

At the same time, Conru created a new personals site, this one designed to include just-friends relationships as well as potential dates and, accordingly, called it FriendFinder. With the software developed by W3.COM, he and his colleagues had the site running within two weeks, though they've never stopped tweaking its content.

People looking explicitly for sex soon started posting on FriendFinder. At first staffers would simply delete the ads, but Conru decided it would be easier to create a site just for those listings, keeping risqué content in the fold, so to speak, while keeping it off FriendFinder.

AdultFriendFinder launched in fall 1996, and within six months, it had surpassed the parent site in terms of visits.

Today FriendFinder is the leading global online relationship network, with dating sites for seniors, Christians, Jews, GLBTs, Asians and a string of language communities, plus other social networking areas, registering upwards of 160,000 people each day. AdultFriendFinder alone has about 20 million active members. Conru employs about 300 people in the company's Palo Alto, Calif. and Las Vegas offices and another 100 remotely. More than 300,000 affiliates are registered with the group.

Conru called AdultFriendFinder the first dating site to allow people to embrace, not hide, their sensuality and sexuality. Dating sites "show people's education sides, their religious sides — why not their sexual sides?" Conru said.

He also asserted that members of AdultFriendFinder are "more real and more open" than they are on other dating sites. Because conventional dating sites clamp down on sex talk, the guy who says he likes taking long walks on the beach might be saying what a woman likes to hear in order to get laid, Conru suggested; on AdultFriendFinder, he said, "when someone says he likes walking on the beach, he probably means it."

From the beginning of AdultFriendFinder, Conru sought to have the site look like a mainstream dating site.

"One issue we faced was how to create an adult-oriented dating site that didn't feel like a porn site," he said. The images shown on AdultFriendFinder are the members' own, Conru said; many members are good about reporting images they recognize from other adult sites or other members, and FriendFinder is rolling out software to identify duplicate images.

Living the Good Life
Conru believes that the mainstream Internet and adult sites can learn and benefit from each other. The adult Internet, he told participants at a Web 2.0 conference in 2004, is starting to evolve from the hardcore hard sell with a less obtrusive, softer pitch, and is shifting from tunnel vision on short-term return on investment to a longer view, adding customization and personalization to attract repeat visitors.

On the flip side, as adult sites appeal to smaller and smaller niche audiences, he said, they become more willing to send business to competitors working other niches, and mainstream sites are beginning to see that it can be beneficial for competitors to collaborate via links and new ventures.

FriendFinder is 100 percent privately held, with Conru drawing a salary and a percentage of the profits. The sites weathered the 2000 Internet dive well, and because Conru hadn't invested in or traded for Internet stock that lost value, he wasn't affected when the bubble burst.

"It's good just to grow a company," he said.

The Road Ahead
He's come a long way from the years when he was as likely to sleep in his office as in his bed, with a 360 Modena and a home on a pretty piece of land in the hills above Palo Alto, Calif. But accordingly to his friend Legendary Lars Mapstead, who has known Conru since the early 1990s and became his business partner when his Cams.com merged with FriendFinder in 2005, it isn't that long since Conru was pulling out a mat from under his desk for catnaps and driving a beat-up Ford.

"Andrew lives nothing like the way other people of his success level live," Mapstead said, adding that it's difficult to get him to adult trade shows: "He would definitely rather spend time coding."

Part of Conru's spotty attendance at trade shows stems from a fear of flying that blossomed when he was on a jet that had an engine catch fire over the Pacific Ocean.

However, Conru is no hermit. A single who lives with his dog, Cleo, he has a public profile on most of the FriendFinder sites, including AdultFriendFinder, and calls himself an "active and successful member" of the sites.

Working with hundreds of adult companies and thousands of affiliates, Conru sees the adult industry as filled with talented people, state of the art technology and financial resources that can be re-purposed to help all sorts of people, and he recently funded a nonprofit company to help mainstream non-profit reuse technology developed for the adult industry to connect people to needed services.

"I'm always amazed at the creativity of the adult world and the drive that motivates people," he said.

Conru probably won't quit until the whole world is wired, either.

"Ever since I was a little kid," he said, "I've finished what I've started."


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