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Motherboard

How to Make a Million Dollars Pushin’ Pixels: An Interview with The Million Dollar Homepage Creator Alex Tew

I mean, who really makes a million bucks online? No effin’ way, man. Not in 2005.

by Kareem Rahma
Mar 12 2013, 7:18pm

When I was in college Alex Tew’s story was one of mere folklore. I mean, who really makes a million bucks online? No effin’ way, man. Not in 2005.

Well, Tew did. The creator of The Million Dollar Homepage, Tew took advantage of the still-amorphous state of the online ad industry at the end of the first dot-com bubble with a ridiculously simple premise: Sell a million pixels worth of ad space at a buck a pop.

It was one of the original “I wish I woulda thought of that” moments in every millennial’s life. It also stands as a legendary case study of just how silly online advertising and the idea of viral PR was in the Web 1.0 era. (It should come as no surprise that online casino and PR hound GoldenPalace.com has a prominent location on Tew's site.)

But I’ve always wondered what happened to that million dollar homepage guy. So I decided to track him down and ask him myself.

Motherboard: What did you really do with the million bucks? I would have had some fun with it, you know? Bought some jet skis or some bodegas in NYC. Maybe a house in Nashville...

Tew: I put cash into new ideas. I bought a big TV. I bought a Mini. I bought a small flat near where my parent's live (a disastrous investment). The taxman took a reasonable chunk too.

Is a million dollars really as cool and fun as it seems? How did your life change?

It's definitely more fun having $1 million than having no money. But it's not going to solve all of life's problems. In fact, chances are it will create some new ones. Especially if you spend it all.

Tew eyes his million dollar baby in this old photo.
From Know Your Meme

Were there any unhappy customers with Million Dollar Homepage? How many hours a day did you actually have to spend "working" on the site?

We did have some unhappy customers early on because the site wasn't designed to handle any significant number of orders. There was no dynamic code in the site when it launched, everything was done by hand. So people would have to wait days for their ads to go live. But most people were pretty happy with the traffic and attention they got.

There was a reasonably significant amount of work involved in keeping the site running, I had two friends working full-time fulfilling orders and I was full-time promoting it. I think at peak I was doing something like 20 or 30 interviews every day. Journalists from far afield came up to Nottingham (where I was at uni) to talk to me and take my photo. I should have been studying.

Did you have partners or anyone else working with you?

It was me at the start, but once it was up and running I had two friends working full-time fulfilling orders, and my family chipped in to help at different points in time. I also hired this eccentric PR lady in the US to organise interviews for me which culminated in a week long media tour over there.

Have you ever met Kyle McDonald of One Red Paperclip fame? I feel like you guys should be friends.

I met him briefly once at a conference for internet memes in Boston. His story is awesome.

You're now a successful internet entrepreneur. What did you want to be before you started The Million Dollar Homepage? What was your dream?

I always wanted to be an entrepreneur. Richard Branson was my hero as a kid. Before MDHP I was started a number of websites, including HumanBeatbox.com, a community for beatboxers. I even organized the world's first human beatbox convention back in 2003!

"Crazy ideas are great. Often the crazier the better. The main thing though is to translate an idea into action."

I checked out your LinkedIn. You're the founder of a bunch of companies. Any other success stories? How do you know which ideas are actually worth pursuing?

Over the years I've had a bunch stuff that didn't work out as planned, but also quite a few viral hits on the web. One example is Sock and Awe, a shoe throwing game based on the famous incident with George W. Bush. We had 10 million players throwing shoes at his face.

In 2011 I set up a one page site called 'Do Nothing for 2 Minutes' - and that went from zero to two million visitors in a week. It was the catalyst for my latest project, calm.com.

What are you working on now?

Calm.com. Our mission is to reduce stress and increase calm in an increasingly stressed-out world. We do this by providing beautiful guided relaxation sessions and we just released our first iPhone app.

Any advice for other young bucks with crazy ideas?

Crazy ideas are great. Often the crazier the better. The main thing though is to translate an idea into action. Everyone has ideas, but not many people act on them. The only way to find out if an idea is great is to do it and give it your best shot.

If you are on a subway or an airplane (or even a movie theater) what is the best way to hold in a fart?

Don't hold it in. Free what should be free. But catch it. Perhaps with a sweater, put that between your legs.

What was the second most craziest moment of your life? Tell me a crazy story please.

In 2003 I went to Roskilde Festival in Denmark with three beatboxing friends. There was a small stage set up in one of the campsites, and we had been given free tickets to the festival in return for performing during the week.

On the day the music was scheduled to start (I think Thursday), a member of the festival crew asked us to come over to the main stage and speak with one of the organisers. We weren't sure why, but we followed along. When we got there this Danish lady with frizzy hair asked us if we'd like to be the first act on and open the entire festival. In front of 60,000 people!

Of course we said yes, and so later that afternoon the four of us opened up Roskilde Festival 2003 with a medley of beatboxing covers including a rendition of 'Enter Sandman' by Metallica, who were headlining that night. The thousands of Metallica fans waiting to see their favorite band went wild. It was awesome. Of course, the real crazy stories happened after our performance, but I can't talk about those. My mum might read this.

Do you still stop and pick up pennies on the street?

I never did.