Alex Tew didn’t give a damn about paying his “dues.”
At 21, he was about to start a three-year business management course at the University of Nottingham . . . but there was one significant problem: money. He didn’t want to be saddled with ridiculous student loan debt he would work years to pay off. Most students his age just shrug and accept that society “requires” them to play by the rules. Tew’s mind was in a completely different place.
After brainstorming ideas to make some extra income to pay off the loans quickly he decided to launch a basic website that would sell one million pixels on the homepage to advertisers for $1 each. A truly strange idea in 2005 that has since been copied ad nauseam.
Though Tew is from England, he thought “million dollar” was more attractive than “million pound” from a marketing perspective. There are more Americans online as well, so he decided to go with US currency. For the record, I think he was right!
The pixels are too small to see individually, so they were to be be sold in blocks of 10×10 for a minimum purchase of $100. Each advertiser could choose what pictures they wanted to display in their allotted space and to where they wanted the pixels to link. The plan was ingeniously simple . . . but Alex had no idea if it would actually work.
“From the outset I knew the idea had potential, but it was one of those things that could have gone either way,” he remarked on FT.com. “My thinking was I had nothing to lose (apart from the 50 Euros or so it cost to register the domain and setup the hosting). I knew that the idea was quirky enough to create interest . . . . The internet is a very powerful medium.”
The first few sales rolled in slowly — mostly to family and friends — propelled entirely by word of mouth. Word spread more quickly as people heard about the site. The BBC picked up the story and it blew up. Visitors poured in. Advertisers lined up. After only one month, the site had made more than $250,000. After two months, it topped $500,000.
Demand spiked around New Year’s 2006 when only 1,000 pixels were left. In the interest of fairness, Tew auctioned the remaining slots off on Ebay to the tune of $38,100. He’d just made $1,037,100 in five months. Media attention was largely praiseworthy, calling the idea a brilliant example of novel, innovative advertising and entrepreneurship in the internet age.
Naturally, others were less enthused. Don Oldenburg of the Washington Post called the site “a cheap, mind-bogglingly lucrative marketing monstrosity, an advertising badlands of spam, banner ads and pop-ups.” He went on to write “it looks like a bulletin board on designer steroids, an advertising train wreck you can’t not look at. It’s like getting every pop-up ad you ever got in your life, at once. It’s the Internet equivalent of suddenly feeling like you want to take a shower.”
Commentary like this always makes me laugh because it’s a prime example of how deeply ingrained the “pay your dues” mentality runs in many of us.
Oldenburg (perhaps appropriately named?) seems to imply that perhaps Tew doesn’t “deserve” such praise or reward because The Million Dollar Homepage doesn’t follow procedure. It’s way outside the box. It’s ugly.
At the very root of his complaint, he probably feels like Tew’s success wasn’t earned. I get it where he’s coming from. To witness a stupid, simple website like this make more in five months than most traditional employees make in an entire career might be infuriating and mind-boggling to some.
It triggers the same type of rage you feel when you see an invention on late night TV and think to yourself, “I could have thought of that!” I’ve been there. The urge to give in to jealousy and envy is strong. But, to the hackers, misfits and rebels of our generation, these types of massive wins by the underdogs of society are simply validation that we’re on the right path. Their success means that we can do the same.You are part of this new world and the opportunity to make such massive strides is yours as well as Alex’s.
Am I telling you to go out and build another Million Dollar Homepage? Of course not. It probably wouldn’t work. The allure was in the novelty. What you should be paying attention to is Tew’s trajectory and overall approach to creating his life. His willingness to take risks. His rejection of the “time spent” model and his playful approach to ethically skipping steps and getting ahead. This is how you need to start thinking.
Jace Hall told me years ago, you don’t need to pass through “B” to move from “A” to “C.” With creativity and hustle, you can live the life of your dreams now. Not in 30 years.
Oh, by the way: After the success of The Million Dollar Homepage, Tew dropped out of the business degree he was fundraising for in the first place. And not a single due was paid. Take that, establishment.
And lots of parents and grandparents won’t like this new truth. Even some of your friends won’t like it, because if you don’t have to pay your dues, that means you can be successful NOW. And that’s scary to a lot of people.
It’s pointless to think this isn’t true. Alex Tew and people like him prove it every single day. He built a simple website, advertised it and he made over $1 million in five months. No dues paid whatsoever. If anybody’s convinces you to let go of this antiquated mindset, let it be Alex.