Friend’s online dating company, Plenty of Fish, is newly located on the 26th floor of a downtown skyscraper with a revolving restaurant on the roof. The gleaming space could easily house 30 employees, but as Friend strides in, it is eerily quiet -- just a room with new carpets, freshly painted walls, and eight flat-screen computer monitors. Friend drops his bag and plops himself down in front of one of them.
He looks down at his desk. There's a $180,000 order waiting for his signature. It's from Video Egg, a San Francisco company that is paying Friend to run a series of Budweiser commercials in Canada. Like most of his advertising deals, this one found Friend. He hadn't even heard of Video Egg until a week ago. But then, you tend to attract advertisers' attention when you are serving up 1.6 billion web pages each month.
Compass Founder Robert Rifkin on How to Bounce Back From FailureThat's a lot of personal ads. "One-point-six be-million," Friend says slowly, smacking his lips on the hard b. "There are maybe 10 sites in the U.S. with more than that." Five years ago, he started Plenty of Fish with no money, no plan, and scant knowledge of how to build a Web business. Today, according to the research firm Hit wise, his creation is the largest dating website in the U.S. and quite possibly the world. Its traffic is four times that of dating pioneer Match, which has annual revenue of $350 million and a staff that numbers in the hundreds. Until 2007, Friend had a staff of exactly zero. Today, he employs just three customer service workers, who check for spam and delete nude images from the Plenty of Fish Customer Services website while Friend handles everything else.
Amazingly, Friend has set up his company so that doing everything else amounts to doing almost nothing at all. "I usually accomplish everything in the first hour," he says, before pausing for a moment to think this over. "Actually, in the first 10 or 15 minutes.
To demonstrate, Friend turns to his computer and begins fiddling with a free software program that he uses to manage his advertising inventory. While he is doing this, he carps about Canada's high-income taxes, a serious problem considering that Plenty of Fish is on track to book revenue of $10 million for 2008, with profit margins in excess of 50 percent. Then, six minutes 38 seconds after beginning his workday, Friend closes his Web browser and announces, "All done.
All done? Are you serious? "The site pretty much runs itself," he explains. "Most of the time, I just sit on my ass and watch it." There's so little to do that he and his girlfriend, Annie Chancier, spent the better part of last summer sunning themselves on the French Riviera. Friend would log on at night, spend a minute or two making sure there were no serious error messages, and then go back to sipping expensive wine. A year ago, they relaxed for a couple of weeks in Mexico with a yacht, a captain, and four of Fancier’s friends. "Me and five girls," he says. "Rough life."
As Friend gets up to leave, I ask him what he has planned for the rest of the day. "I don't know," he says. "Maybe I'll take a nap."
It's a 21st-century fairy tale: A young man starts a website in his spare time. This person is unknown and undistinguished. He hasn't gone to MIT, Stanford, or any other four-year college for that matter, yet he is deceptively brilliant. He has been bouncing aimlessly from job to job, but he is secretly ambitious. He builds his company by himself and from his apartment. In most stories, this is where the hard work begins -- the long hours, sleepless nights, and near-death business experiences. But this one is way mellower. Friend takes it easy, working no more than 20 hours a week during the busiest times and usually no more than 10. Five years later, he is running one of the largest websites on the planet and paying himself more than $5 million a year.
Friend, 30, doesn't seem like the sort of fellow who would run a market-leading anything. Quiet, soft-featured, and ordinary looking, he is the kind of person who can get lost in a roomful of people and who seems to take up less space than his large frame would suggest. Those who know Friend describe him as introverted, smart, and a little awkward. "Markus is one of those engineers who is just more comfortable sitting in front of a computer than he is talking to someone face to face," says Noel Biermann, the co-founder of Avid Life Media, a Toronto-based company that owns several Dating Support Number.
When he does engage in conversation, Friend can be disarmingly frank, delivering vitriolic quips with a self-assured cheerfulness that feels almost mean. Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), he says, is "a complete joke," Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) is "a cult," and Match is "dying." Says Mark Brooks, a marketing consultant who has advised Friend since 2006, "I've never known anybody so competitive. He always says exactly what he thinks."
With friends and family, Friend expresses affection through playful pranks. Friend will spend hours hiding in the three-bedroom apartment he and Chancier share, furtively flipping light switches, tapping on doors, and ducking into rooms to play on his girlfriend's fear of ghosts. Another memorable valentine involved the secret consumption of a massive quantity of hot peppers. Though his mouth was on fire, Friend calmly planted a kiss on Fancier’s lips and feigned ignorance as she went scrambling for water.
Chancier, a freelance Web designer who also helps out around Plenty of Fish, is a lanky blonde with an easy smile and a hearty laugh, which she often uses to try to get Friend to open up. When I ask him to talk about what he does with the 23 hours a day in which he doesn't work, Friend struggles to answer and then looks helplessly at Chancier. She offers a few suggestions -- video games, ski trips, walks -- then tries to focus his energies. "We're trying to convince Max that we're interesting," she says sweetly.
That's not easy for Friend, who seems most comfortable with the world at arm's length. "He never raises his voice," Chancier says later. "And he doesn't like conflict." Friend prefers to remain a silent observer of others, who then constructs arguments and counterarguments about their motivations. He seems perpetually lost in thought, constantly thinking about and studying the world around him. "He's always watching his environment to apply it to the site," says Chancier. "Once in a while, from the middle of nowhere, he'll say, 'Why is that girl doing that?' or 'Why is that guy posing like that?' He'll check people out in restaurants and watch how they interact. In a way, he's thinking about the company all the time."
Friend spent his formative years on a grain farm in the northern hinterlands of British Columbia -- "the bush," in local parlance. His hometown, Hudson's Hope, is a cold, isolated place not far from the starting point of the Alaska Highway. Friend’s parents, German farmers who emigrated just before his fourth birthday, bought a 1,200-acre plot 10 miles from town and initially lived in a trailer without electricity, phones, or running water. The family's closest neighbors were a mile and a half away, and, apart from a younger brother, Friend had few friends. "His problem was English," says his father, Eduard Friend. "If you don't have English, you can't do anything." Friend eventually adjusted, but his was a lonely childhood. He rarely visits Hudson's Hope these days. When his parents want to see him, they make the 14-hour drive southward.
After graduating from a technical school in 1999 with a two-year degree in computer programming, Friend got a job with an online shopping mall. Then the dot-com bubble burst, and he spent the next two years bouncing from failed startup to failed startup. For most of 2002, he was unemployed. "Every six months, I got a new job," Friend says. "It'd start with 30 people, then five months later, there'd be five. It was brutal." When he did have work, it felt like torture. His fellow engineers seemed to be writing deliberately inscrutable code in order to protect their jobs. "It would literally take me four or five hours," he says -- an eternity in Friend time -- "just to make heads or tails of their code, when normally you're supposed to spend, like, two minutes doing that."
But cleaning up other people's messes taught Friend how to quickly simplify complex code. In his spare time, he started working on a piece of software that was designed to find prime numbers in arithmetic progression. The topic, a perennial challenge in mathematics because it requires lots of computing power, had been discussed in one of his classes, and Friend thought it would be a fun way to learn how to sharpen his skills. He finished the hobby project in 2002, and, two years later, his program discovered a string of 23 prime numbers, the longest ever. (Friend’s record has since been surpassed, but not before it was cited by UCLA mathematician and Fields Medal winner Terence Tao.) "It was just a way of teaching myself something," Friend says. "I was learning how to make the computer as fast as possible."
By early 2003, the technology economy in Vancouver had yet to bounce back, and Friend’s sixth employer in three years was laying off half its workforce. Worried that he would again find himself unemployed, Friend decided to bolster his qualifications. He would devote a couple of weeks to mastering Microsoft's new tool for building websites, ASP.net, and do it by building the hardest kind of website he could think of.
Online dating was an inspired choice. Not only does the act of building an intricate web of electronic winks, smiles, and nudges require significant programming skills, but the industry has always been a friendly place for oddballs and opportunists. Industry pioneer Gary Kreme, the founder of Match and the man who registered the Sex.com domain name, cites rapper Ice Cube and the bank robber "Slick" Willie Sutton as important influences on his business philosophy. Another pioneer, James Hong, co-founded hot or not, a site with a single, crude feature. Hong allowed users to upload pictures of themselves and have other user’s rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10. Hot or not was acquired for $20 million in cash last year by Noel Biermann’s company, Avid Life. Avid, which has also courted Plenty of Fish, derives most of its revenue from Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people (tag line: "Life is short. Have an affair"). The site has 2.8 million members and revenue in the tens of millions of dollars.
Unlike many online dating entrepreneurs, Friend didn't start Plenty of Fish to meet women -- or even because he had some vision of business glory. "It was a burning desire to have something stable," he says. "And I didn't really want to work." Friend’s eyes were also a factor. He suffers from hypersensitivity to light, and his eyes were not taking well to long days in front of a screen. Working a few hours an evening for two weeks, Friend built a crude dating site, which he named Plenty of Fish. It was desperately simple -- just an unadorned list of plain-text personals ads. But it promised something that no big dating company offered: it was free.