The Most Downloaded Exec: 1

Matt O'Conner
F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. He was drunk at the time, of course, on his way to committing suicide on the alcohol installment plan, which may explain why he was so laughably wrong.

Case in point: Danni Ashe.

In Act I, Ashe played a big-breast model and feature dancer with one standout scene in a Florida jail cell. In Act II, she picked up a book on HTML, took on the role of CEO and built a multimillion-dollar Internet business.

Take that, F. Scott.

Today, Danni's Hard Drive, the company Ashe founded, uses more bandwidth than all of Central America. The company shoots between 25-40 hours of video content every week, not including location and feature productions, and employs 35 people in-house and many more on a freelance basis. Last year, the site had an estimated 25 million unique visitors, with members paying between $19.95-$29.95 per month.

But back to that prison scene in Act I for just a moment.

Ashe had been performing topless and selling videos of her striptease act for several nights at a Jacksonville club. But on the last night of her engagement, she was suddenly surrounded by 13 cops from three different jurisdictions and hauled away in handcuffs.

Her crime? Trusting the manager of the club to tell her the truth about the local obscenity laws, which, he neglected to mention, forbid nudity, both live and on tape.

That night, while suffering the indignity of orange prison johnnies, Ashe had an epiphany: The road wasn't for her. She needed to find another way to pay the rent.

End Act I.

Perhaps it was kismet or just dumb luck that Ashe got arrested 1994, around the same time her husband's company redesigned its website. Ashe took one look and knew instantly how she was going to pay the rent. She picked up a book on HTML and headed to the Bahamas to teach herself programming while working on her tan. A few weeks later, she built her website.

Keep in mind that these were the Wild West days of the adult Internet, when "if you build it, they will come" still had some credence, and the site was a success almost from the moment it went live.

"I was like the only woman in a gold rush town," Ashe said.

While Ashe will be the first to admit she had a lot to learn about the technical aspects of running a site in those early days, what she lacked in technical expertise, she more than made up for with a natural understanding of the male psyche and an ability to connect with her audience.

By nurturing a sex-positive cultural aesthetic aimed at dispelling Freudian notions of guilt, she quickly turned Danni's Hard Drive into perhaps the best-established brand to rise out of the dot-com boom years.

"I think all media, including pornography, is a mirror of what's going on in our collective subconscious; it's something that's surfacing in us, in our culture," Ashe told PBS' "Frontline." "It's all about making people feel comfortable. You know, let's let people laugh. Let's let them not feel guilty or uncomfortable about where they are and what they're doing."

From the start, Ashe wanted Danni's Hard Drive to fill a space more traditional porn sites were overlooking. Rather than load up on explicit images, Ashe set out to create the type of a site the average guy could feel good about belonging to and would want to tell his friends about, and she did it with a mix of softcore pictures and video, photo parodies, humor and personality profiles.

It also didn't hurt that Ashe was a masterful self-promoter. She worked every possible angle to get maximum exposure for the site, including a highly publicized feud with Cindy Margolis that ended with Ashe being confirmed as the most downloaded woman on the planet by the Guinness Book of World Records.

As a result, when other online entities started to fade from existence during the dot-com bust, Danni's Hard Drive continued to make money — lots of money — and the business world took note. In just a few short years, Ashe went from the cover of Juggs to the cover of the Wall Street Journal, literally.

Along the way, she also learned the fine art of hiring well, assembling a team of programmers that has developed streaming video, hosting and credit card processing and scrubbing systems. In fact, the company has had so much success with its proprietary technologies that marketing its systems to other websites has become its largest growth area, and Ashe is now a highly sought-after technology consultant and conference keynote speaker.

In part two we'll hear what Danni has to say in her own words.