Update: ImageShack CEO Hints At His Grander Ambitions

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Yesterday, I reported a strong rumor that Sequoia Capital had invested in image-hosting site ImageShack. Today, I spoke with CEO and founder Jack Levin. He would not comment specifically on the funding rumor other than to say that over the past few months he’s been in discussions with a variety of VCs. So he may still be in the late stages of discussions, or he may have closed the round. He really wouldn’t say. But at the very least, he is definitely looking for funding.

He was, however, very forthcoming on other aspects of his business. And outlined a grand ambition befitting an early employee of Google (his claim to fame is the clustering architecture that Google is based on).

Levin did want to correct a few things from the original post, in which I said he has self-funded the startup until now. “I never put a single dime into the company,” he says. Unless you count the $80 for the first month of server hosting back in November, 2003 when he was still working at Google. But that month the company made $200, so it has been profitable from the start. His secret:

We were profitable for the last three years. The most different thing about our company is that it would take 7 to 8 million dollars in opex [operating expenses] per year to run a media hosting company like ours if you were using traditional non-off-the-shelf clustering technology, where we use a tiny fraction of that amount, which allows us to be profitable and take risks other companies can’t.

Because of the way he designed his back-end architecture, he can serve two terabytes of images from a single $1,000, Linux server. So he spends only about $200,000 a year on capital expenditures and now has about 500 servers. He was also able to leverage his industry connections to get really cheap bandwidth rates.

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Also, subscriptions make up a tiny portion of revenues. Most of the revenues come from advertising on the site. ImageShack serves about 10 million ads a day, mostly to people who go to the site to upload their images. Although the site also attracts 500,000 brand new visitors every single day. Levin also notes that it is “unlikely we will ever modify the image” with ads because “that would be like spamming the Internet.”

Rather than put ads in or around the images it hosts, Levin is working on harnessing all the data his service generates about content consumption (perhaps to better target advertising on ImageShack or to syndicate that targetting data to ad networks). Like Google and Yahoo, he is deploying the open-source Hadoop software to create a massive distributed supercomputer, but he is using it to analyze all the data he is collecting. Levin is vague about how he plans to make money from this data, but it is clear he is convinced the data is pretty valuable. He explains the opportunity in broad strokes:

We are like a broadcasting company that broadcasts in every country, in every language, on every topic. There are a lot of misconceptions in the Valley that the Internet is just two or three companies. But that is not true.

Don’t you think it is ridiculous to see business plans based on how many Facebook widget users you have? We have millions of Websites using our services. It doesn’t matter what Facebook does.

So I am still not sure if Sequoia funded his startup, but I can see why it would want to.

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