On a typical morning in her Tacoma household, Beth Mansfield sends her husband off to work and prepares lunch for her two boys. After dropping them off at school in the Corolla, she settles into her home office to spend yet another day scouring the Internet for the latest in hot, raunchy, XXX pornography.
It's a time-consuming process using search engines and following new links, but Mansfield is nothing if not diligent. The finicky former accountant divides the free sites from the pay sites, then breaks them down by content: hard-core, soft-core, gay, woman-on-woman, and various other specialties and permutations less fit to print.
The uncensored smorgasbord of smut delivered via her T-3 line no longer shocks her, although she says she certainly hasn't developed a taste for it. She'd rather look at her needlepoint or the pictures her sons have drawn that hang on the walls of the dining room, which doubles as her home office.
"I'm probably the strangest adult cruiser there is. I go and look at the structure (of a site), look at what they offer...count the images...and I'm out," Mansfield says. "It's kind of like an OB/GYN type of thing."
Netizens likely won't recognize the name "Mansfield," but many more than will admit it know her online moniker, Persian Kitty. Mansfield is the creator and keeper of Persian Kitty's Adult Links, a catalog of more than 1,000 hot links to pornographic Web pages that has become a veritable Yahoo! of adult content. By conservative estimates, 270,000 visitors pop by Persian Kitty daily to check the unparalleled list of the lewd and lascivious.
The traffic makes Persian Kitty an extreme, but not unique, example of surprisingly successful adult sites started by innovative, ambitious and sometimes unlikely entrepreneurs. While the pundits and academics search in vain for how best to turn the Web into gold, these small porntrepreneurs are exploiting a simple equation: the newest technology + the world's oldest commodity = big money.
These bite-size Larry Flynts in turn are mocking the conventional wisdom that says the Web is not yet a viable commercial medium. They are proving that a site need not cost millions to make millions, and that consumers will indeed engage in credit card transactions via the Internet.
In the case of Persian Kitty, the site has been lucrative beyond Mansfield's wildest fantasies. The home page, which the 36-year-old housewife started on a lark 18 months ago, now generates $80,000 a month in advertising, 70 percent of it profit. In short, it has been an awesome trip for Mansfield, who launched Persian Kitty simply "to see how many people I could bring into my corner of the Web."
"I feel like I've won the lottery," says Mansfield, who plans to invest the profits in a larger house and a minivan. "I guess I was just in the right place at the right time."
Mansfield is not the only one cashing in on online pornography. PC Meter reports that of the 20 most popular Web sites, two are adult sites (they are the only two of the 20 that charge visitors). Of the top 500 sites that get 1 percent or more of the traffic, 50 are adult sites. Put it this way--the "cybererotica" site ranks as the 14th most popular, one slot above www.Disney.com.
Various theories are bandied about to explain pornography's disproportionate standing on the Internet. One is universally agreed upon: Adult sites don't just sell easy access, they sell anonymous access. "You don't need sunglasses and a trench coat when you're surfing the Net," said Greg Wester, research director for the Boston- based Yankee Group.
The popularity should come as little surprise given that pornography has driven the adoption of numerous other technologies, such as the video camera and video-on-demand. It is also widely thought that VCRs were initally brought into the home to watch dirty flicks. Only after this introduction did the technology become as much a part of the family as the dog.
"This is the typical technology adoption cycle," says Kate Delhagen, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. "Who knows, maybe the people who are giving their credit cards now to buy (online pornography) will eventually give them to buy flowers for their wives."
Perhaps less typical of the cycle is the early success of individual entrepreneurs who have little experience in the field, and less financial backing. Take the case of www.Janey.com, which Steph Huntington started in February of 1996 as a way merely to test his prowess with HTML coding.
Huntington initially posted a home page featuring eight provocative, but fully-clothed, pictures he had taken of his wife Janey. He did so as an interim and experimental effort before he built the page that was his ultimate goal--an explanation of the international standards for environmental and quality management.
The Huntingtons, however, soon realized they were on to something with Janey.com. Janey spread word of the page on IRC channels and within a couple of weeks, the page had registered 20,000 hits. (To this day, Steph says he hasn't gotten one hit on his environmental standard page).
Janey.com, meanwhile, has blossomed into one of the Web's dominant "amateur" sites. It attracts 14,000 visitors a day who come to see topless pictures of Janey, a 45-year-old grandmother of two, and more hard-core images of other non-professional models, including housewives, college students, a lifeguard and a waitress from Hooters.
As with Persian Kitty's Adult Links, Janey's traffic has translated into big advertising dollars. The Huntingtons say that they earn between $8,000 and $10,000 a month selling banner advertising space. Most of the space is purchased by larger adult sites, although there is one pizza restaurant advertising delivery. The couple also makes money selling the models' pictures ($6 for six photos) and their bras and panties. The panties go for $30 each and come with a picture and a personalized note.
Lest you get the idea the Huntingtons merely backed into their success, understand that Steph, a retired executive, has undertaken to run it as a full-fledged business operation. In one bedroom in their four- bedroom house in Diamond Bar, Calif., the couple houses several powerful Unix Apache servers, with Pentium Pro 200 brains and 256 megabytes of memory each. The Huntingtons sell space on the servers to other adult sites, a source of an additional $4,000 a month in revenue.
The Huntingtons have bigger plans still. They are launching a new pay site called Private Reserve that will charge $15 to $20 each month for more hard-core pornography. They also plan to offer videoconferencing and pay-per-view sex.
While Steph runs the business side, Janey personally responds to each of the 150 e-mails she receives each day. She also takes time to wear every pair of panties before she mails them out, which can become time-consuming considering she sold $1,700 worth of undergarments in February alone. She said the effort explains the reason for the success of Janey.com: Consumers of pornography want a personal touch, not necessarily anonymous hard-core imagery.
"I can't tell you how many guys are lonely or suicidal or by themselves who write," says Janey. "I think there are a lot of lonely people out there I can help."
A similar philosophy underlies the efforts of Danni's Hard Drive, a site aggressively run by stripper Danni Ashe. The Hard Drive features pictures of Ashe, 29, her officemates, and images she presciently licensed from magazines called Naughty Neighbors and Score.
Ashe expects the 2-year-old site to gross $2 million in revenue next year, largely from charging $9.95 in monthly subscriptions. She said the Hard Drive gets 3.5 million hits a day.
Like Janey, Ashe believes smaller pornography sites can compete because they give visitors a sense of intimacy. At the same time, Ashe also agrees with Steph that it will get more and more difficult for small sites to establish themselves. "The (door) isn't closing for the little guy, but it's getting more and more difficult," says Ashe. "It's harder and harder to get seen unless you spend a lot on advertising."
One gets the feeling Ashe will continue to fare well. A perfectionist and aggressive businesswoman, Ashe runs the Hard Drive out of a business park in Los Angeles with the zeal of Bill Gates taking on Netscape. To publicize the site, for example, she trades for advertising space in magazines like D-Cup and Juggs by doing photo shoots for them. It is a business model she pioneered.
She has also managed to attract copious mainstream press. She has been interviewed by Roger Ebert, and appeared in such diverse publications as Interactive Week and the Los Angeles Business Journal. The attention is far different from what she was accustomed to in a decade of stripping.
"The other day, my husband and I were at the newsstand and we were looking at (pictures of me in) computer magazines, not titty magazines," she said. "It's very strange."
Ashe will not disclose her profit margin. It is evident, however, that unlike Persian Kitty or Janey, Ashe's use of professional models and her more aggressive operation eats into the profits.
Still, she is smaller than the heavy hitters from the porn industry that increasingly are making their presence felt on the Web. Major magazines, video houses and, in particular, phone sex companies are weighing in with slick, multimillion-dollar Web sites.
Seth Warshavsky's Internet Entertainment Group, an offshoot of his once $70 million-dollar phone sex operation, spent $3 million developing 12 sites, including ClubLove and GirlsGirlsGirls. His Seattle office has an administrative staff of 25 and it consumes $350,000 a month in overhead.
He is approaching the Internet as pornography's next great medium, a portable storefront that brings buyers of sex exactly what they want, exactly when they want it. He projects the company's revenue at $20 million next year. To position itself, IEG has made numerous investments, creating partnerships to broadcast the live conferencing for Penthouse magazine, and to provide Web services to the major XXX movie houses, Vivid Video and Seymore. IEG has also licensed the exclusive Internet conferencing rights to eight of the biggest porn stars.
He even speaks of Internet pornography in terms of big business. "We've been very successful about tying up content and real estate," says Warshavsky, possibly referring to the contracts with the porn stars. "There's not a lot of people entering the market like we have."
The presence of big players is double edged for the smaller porntrepreneurs. On the one hand, it represents obvious competition. On the other hand, the advertising spent by the big players helps keep smaller sites in the black. Not including the $100,000 it spends in print media, IEG pours $200,000 a month into Internet advertising. Its banners appear on about 1,600 Web sites, including a number of smaller sites.
The big sites have also helped drive the technology, which could be good for the industry as a whole, according to entrepreneurs of all sizes. For example, IEG is pioneering new video conferencing technology. It has begun to license its 24-hour live sex sessions to any and all other adult sites in exchange for 50 percent of the profits.
"We don't feel like we're competing with them at all," Huntington said. "They've been a good friend to us."
As for Mansfield, well, she's worried all of the time. She constantly fears that someone will create a better list of links, or a more popular service. "I'm afraid to relax because I'm afraid it could all go away tomorrow," she says. "It may be that in two years I'll be pounding the pavement looking for work."
So for the time being, the unlikeliest porntrepreneur of them all will continue to put in 12-hour days, checking sites, hunting down the latest adult content, making sure her servers are up, running a site whose name, despite its provocative implication, comes from Mansfield's Persian cat.
"If Smokey only knew," she says.