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Steve Lightspeed

Steve Lightspeed

March 19, 2007
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" I try to stand up as a responsible pornographer. "

It's a double life — and maybe a charmed one. There's the Steve Lightspeed, founder and CEO of Lightspeed Media, who's built a mini-empire of softcore websites featuring some of the adult industry's most popular models, the man who travels the world recruiting new talent and doesn't think twice about flying dozens of webmasters and friends to a "Lightspeed Adventure Weekend."

Then there's the guy who schleps around his Phoenix home in ratty clothes, works out of a home office with his wife and mom and slaps anti-porn filters on his kids' PCs.

Whichever persona you encounter, you're looking at a happy man — someone who turned parallel fascinations with computers and porn into a comfortable livelihood and lifestyle.

Lightspeed, 40, grew up on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, a self-professed "epitome of a computer geek" from age 15. He attended Arizona State University until he was expelled for cheating; his story is that he was trying to get into a girl's pants by tutoring her and ran afoul of the computer science department's rules regarding helping with others' projects.

After finishing his formal education at a Tacoma trade school, Lightspeed worked as a programmer and later opened his own consulting company. By 1999, married and a dad, he was an enthusiastic consumer of Internet porn — and already approaching job burnout after more than a decade in programming.

"It was my wife's idea to go into adult," Lightspeed said. "She laid down some rules, like no screwing around with the girls. And it was supposed to be one hour a week." That timeframe didn't last long. Lightspeed handled every aspect of his first site, acting as recruiter, photographer, webmaster, accountant and customer service rep, and was soon putting in 80-hour weeks.

"I'm like the crash test dummy of the industry," Lightspeed told XBIZ. "I made all the mistakes and crashed into all the walls."

ls-university.com was supposed to be a general softcore college girl site, but early response to his first cheerleader set made Lightspeed the proprietor of a successful cheerleader fetish site.

"I think I've shot more cheerleader sets, over 1,000, than anyone else on the web," he said in an interview.

Cool-Sounding Name
The Lightspeed name dates back to 1991 when he first went online. His own name was too common even back then to use as a handle, and a friend told him, "Pick something that sounds cool."

He managed to make the name a brand from the beginning, even using it as a surname for many of his non-contact models. "Branding has really been the key to our success," Lightspeed said. By spring 2000, he was making enough money from something he'd started doing "just for fun" to close his consulting business.

With associates Richard "RocHard" Buss and Tanker, Lightspeed became a regular at adult industry conventions, sponsoring parties and participating in stunts such as aerial dogfights, paintball wars and go-kart races, "stuff that I can't do now because we have an office, we have business insurance," he said.

Lightspeed earned a rep as an extreme party animal, and the Internet is full of gleeful stories Lightspeed and his compadres have told featuring near disasters, broken bones and soiled trousers.

"We do dodge ball now; it's harder to get hurt by a Nerf ball," he told XBIZ.

Through newspaper ads in the first four years, Lightspeed discovered several models whose photos have become top downloads, girls like Tawnee Stone, Jordan Capri and Taylor Little. He didn't advertise for teenage models when he recruited the girls for his first site, but 18- and 19-year-olds turned out, and since all his sites are spin-offs of his first, he found himself firmly ensconced in the barely legal solo girl niche.

From time to time, he's been accused of making the girls on his sites look younger than 18, but Lightspeed swears that while he doesn't go for over-styled glamour; the way the models look is their own doing.

"They look the way they look. They do their own hair, their own makeup, they choose their clothes," he told XBIZ, adding that he's amazed by how much older the girls look when they get dressed and put on makeup for a night out.

In 2004, Lightspeed had to fend off implied charges of hiring underage girls when Gary Kremen of Sex.com, formerly an ASACP board member, linked searches for "Lightspeed" on his portal to ASACP. The ploy backfired; many industry figures jumped to Lightspeed's defense, attacking Kremen for unprofessional behavior and calling into question ASACP's credibility. Kremen quickly resigned from the ASACP board.

Lightspeed, who had already banned referring URLs containing provocative terms like "Lolita," "kiddie" and "underage," talked about the situation on YNOT Radio. "I wish someone would send me a picture of what an 18-year-old girl is supposed to look like," Lightspeed said. "If you put makeup on them, everyone says they look too old; if you don't put makeup on them, people say they look too young."

His sites have remained almost militantly softcore. "We let our models control their own level of contact," Lightspeed told XBIZ. "When you're talking about a younger woman, it's not about how slutty she can be, how good in bed. It's about innocence, being the girl next door. Making a girl cry while you're peeing on her, that's not my thing."

'Barely Legal' Getting Old?
Although teens have been Lightspeed's bread and butter for the past eight years, it's clear that life in the world of "barely legal" is starting to get old. "We've never been able to break out of our niche," he told XBIZ. "I acknowledge that it's getting creepy; I'm starting to creep myself out."

He also seems to be tiring of young women who can't quite distinguish between porn-star dreams and reality.

"You have to be sensitive to the fact that they're not the brightest or most sensible people," Lightspeed said of girls who pose for him who get upset later when they realize people they know have downloaded them. "I want to work with women who have their shit together," he said.

So it isn't surprising that his new venture, Wrong Way Girls, will feature mostly women in the 22-28 age range. The name comes from Wrong Way Feldman, a pilot who dropped onto Gilligan's Island.

"I've always been a fan of 'Gilligan's Island,'" Lightspeed said. "Jordan and Taylor are my Maryann and Ginger." He added that a major adult player will be joining Lightspeed Media to promote Wrong Way Girls and that it will be branded from the outset with sites, DVDs and a line of clothing.

In contrast to the lightspeedcash.com sites, Wrong Way will move toward more hardcore solo girl and girl-on-girl content. Part of this has to do with Lightspeed Media's gradual drift from still photos to video, with the balance currently at about 50/50.

"Softcore doesn't translate well to video because the girls aren't really doing anything," Lightspeed said.

Also, he said, many of the women he's been working with are ready to take things to the next level. Lightspeed said Little, whom he calls "our designated lesbian," is always asking when she's going to participate in some real girl-on-girl action, and the models he finds in Europe are willing to go well beyond posing and water-pistol fights.

"As the girls get more experienced, they're more willing to expand content," he said.

WSJ Reveals Real Name
Lightspeed had to move his family once when one of his neighbors found out how he makes a living and word got around the neighborhood. So he was not happy last spring when the Wall Street Journal, in a business profile, identified him by his real name after he'd asked the reporter not to include it.

"I don't think I'll ever do another mainstream interview," he told XBIZ. "I felt like they were putting me and my family in harm's way." Lightspeed doesn't think they'll have to move again, though, because they now live in a part of Phoenix where houses are far apart and he doesn't know his neighbors. His children, he indicated, are too young to know about the family business, though he plans to clue them in when they're older.

Lightspeed wishes the Stateside attitude toward adult was as relaxed as it is in Europe. "In another 20 years we won't have to hide, but in the United States there's a backward attitude about sexuality," he said.

The well-traveled Lightspeed spends about half his time away from home, but because he and his wife, Shannon, run the business from a guesthouse in their backyard, he gets to spend time with his kids, who, at 8 and 10, may not even appreciate the gesture.

"When they were smaller, it was like, 'Daddy, don't leave,' and now it's 'See ya,'" Lightspeed said.

He calls Lightspeed Media "basically a mom-and-pop operation," and, in fact, his mother — "the only employee who's allowed to tell me off" — covers customer service. With other photographers covering most of the shooting, Lightspeed said he can take a day off now and then, and now that his son is getting bigger, "I finally have a good golf partner again."

Lightspeed, whose openhanded showmanship at conventions belies a relatively low-key lifestyle, is often ribbed for driving a mini-van instead of a flashy sports car. He once joked on a GFY.com chat board, "I drive the Dodge Viper of mini-vans. I like to race other dads in their mini-vans at the grocery store."

Lightspeed called 2006 "kind of a breather year for us," a year in which they shot four sites instead of 12 and concentrated on marketing.

Ready To Consolidate?
"We're ready to ramp up again now," he said, adding that he might buy out some smaller competitors. "I see the trend toward consolidation in the industry; we need to be part of that."

Right now, Steve Lightspeed doesn't seem to have a lot of concerns. He isn't worried that his audience of college-age guys and forty-somethings for the softcore sites will dry up "as long as we're bringing in new girls."

He doesn't worry about money, spending freely for webmaster events and showing everyone a good time at the annual Phoenix Forum. At the same time, he's stopped recruiting new webmasters for his revshare program, LightspeedCash, saying he's chosen to put the focus on taking care of existing webmasters along with committing resources to marketing and acquisitions.

And he isn't worried about his image within the industry: the guy throws a great party, but his business practices are scrupulously honest, and he deals with his models as professionals, not pets or indentured servants.

"You won't see any crying girls on my site," Lightspeed said. "I try to stand up as a responsible pornographer."


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