Hot or Not Tears Itself Apart, Reinvents

When James Hong and Jim Young founded HotorNot in October, 2000, they had no real plans for the service to be anything other than a fun site for a few friends. They turned a free low end computer they received for setting up an etrade account into a web server, launched the site from their house in Mountain View, California, and emailed 40 friends. By the end of the day, 40,000 people had visited the site, which now had 30 second load times.

It wasn’t too long before the service was hosted at RackSpace and the users were flooding in to rate user-uploaded pictures of themselves on a scale of 1-10. In January 2001 they added a dead simple dating site. Instead of reading endless profiles and trying to find a connection, users just say yes or no to a given picture. If it’s a yes, the other person is shown your picture the next time they look through profiles. If they like you as well, a connection is made.

The Money Rolls In

Until last month, HotorNot was free until that last crucial stage when two people wanted to meet each other. At that point, one of the members (usually the man, Hong tells me) must have been a paid subscriber, which costs $6/month. Hong says their conversion rate was extremely high – 15% of active users eventually upgraded to premium accounts.

The premium revenue, plus advertising and fees for virtual flowers, soon topped $600,000 per month. Nearly all of that was profit for the two founders, who reportedly pocketed $20 million or so between them over the years. The company has never raised any outside funding.

Hong says they receive 2-3 emails per day telling them about marriages that resulted from an initial meeting on HotorNot.

In the last year though a few competitors have popped up (see yesnomayb, a copy of the business model) and a number of free dating sites also started to eat away at traffic. Traffic started to drift sideways, and the developers were getting bored at doing little more than site maintenance.

Going To A Free Model

That’s when Hong and Young decided to rip apart their business model and remove the requirement for members to have premium accounts to talk to each other. A month ago, the requirement was turned off, and about $500k/month in revenue disappeared overnight. The founders also turned the company into a proper “C” corporation and issued stock options for the first time to all employees.

(I can’t help thinking that if HotorNot took venture financing somewhere along the way, they would not have been able to get their board of directors to agree to this.)

Hong says this lit a fire under the company, which is now running on reserve cash of a few million dollars. So far things look good. Traffic jumped over 60% – 10 million people visited the site in the last month, up from 6 million the month before. Advertising and virtual gift revenue spiked, and the site is now break even even though they killed their largest revenue stream.

Hong and Young aren’t stopping there. They have plans to expand the site greatly and say they will launch new products in the coming weeks.

Whether this works in the long run is yet to be seen. But the company wanted to try something new, and the founders took enough money off the table to be comfortable for life. Entrepreneurs tend to have a screwed up way of measuring risk – the more the better – and these guys are no exception.