Alex Tew began his first entrepreneurial venture at age 8, when he photocopied comics he drew to sell at school. "That made about $20," says the 21-year-old business management major at the University of Nottingham in England. He did a little better in his second venture, The Million Dollar Homepage, which he created in August to help fund his education. The idea: divide a Web page into 1 million pixels and sell them to advertisers for $1 per pixel. The site has taken in $902,800 (as of Dec. 27), which he credits to the power of creative ideas, word-of-mouth online and just plain luck.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for the site?
A: It was the last week of August. I was dreading going to university with no money and then taking on loads of debt. I don't want to be in the same position as my brother, who graduated with the equivalent of about $60,000 of debt. I was up late with my notepad, lying on my bed brainstorming. I wrote down the question, "How can I become a millionaire?" I wrote down it would need to be a simple idea to understand and set up. It would have to cost very little. It would need a good name to capture people's imagination. And then it popped in my head. ... And off it went a few days later. It cost about $50 to register the Web site, and it just went boom.
Why do you think it became so popular?
It's often the simple, sort of out-there ideas that capture people's imagination. ... It had that novelty value. I never thought it could make as much as it has.
Is this the sort of thing that can only work once?
I think it can only really work once. That's why I've not been bothered by the imitators. If anything, I think it's flattering. ... In my eyes, there's not a long-term business model within the site.
Are you working on any new ideas?
I've got some money now that I can use to set up a real company. My notebook is crammed with ideas ... quite a few Internet ideas that I want to take forward, now that I've got a bit of capital.
Were you surprised that advertisers on the page found the ads successful in generating leads?
I was surprised that some of the advertisers have gotten as good of a return on this. There's obviously the sheer number of people checking out the site, which in some instances will result in sales and quality leads. ... The advertisers who have performed the best probably have the best creative or are most suited to being on a quirky site.
What can advertisers learn from the site's success?
There is something to be learned from ... how people have been creatively jostling for position on the homepage in order to stand out from the crowd. The other thing would be the power of word-of-mouth. It's a sign that advertisers have to be a little smarter, and appreciate that consumers want to get something from an advert, as opposed to just simply being exposed to a message. Consumers are willing to spread good ideas.
What do you think of ads these days?
Personally, the ones I pay attention to are the ones where you know a degree of thinking has gone into the advert, something different, something unique. There's a lot [of] advertising that's the same: it's boring. Consumers respond to things that have a degree of novelty but also of interest. Most advertising I find boring.
What are three words to describe yourself?
It's always difficult, isn't it, because you don't want to say the wrong thing. God, this is hard. I'd say ambitious, in a good way. I'm not ruthlessly trying to take over the world— I've just got ideas. Second word would be, I don't know, thinker. My natural disposition is to sit and think and ponder and be creative. What's the other word? Got any ideas?
What's on your nightstand?
My phone, a lamp, my watch and my late gran Helen Tew's book, Transatlantic at Last, her personal account of her sailing voyage across the Atlantic [at age] 89.
What's your biggest fear in life?
One of my biggest fears in life is to miss an opportunity. When I see an opportunity, I feel an urge to go after them. I [don't] feel like missing that one opportunity in life—not even in a business sense. A lot of people miss opportunities.
What's the most important thing you've learned from this experience?
The first is a good idea can succeed. It's confirmation that you can come up with really creative solutions that break the mold. Ideas can work. My faith in the creative process has been strengthened. The second thing I've learned is preparation is crucial. I wasn't prepared for the level of success the Web page has had. I've been overwhelmed by the number of e-mails, the number of orders and the amount of publicity ... over the last few months. Whatever I do next, I will prepare as much as possible and have the processes in place to deal with what might happen.
What's been the biggest downside?
I haven't been able to focus on my studies as much as I'd like to. If this hadn't happened, I'd have been 100 percent focused on my studies. Whether that has an effect on my marks, we'll have to see. Overall, it's been positive. The whole thing seems like a dream ... and I'm looking forward to waking up and getting back to normality.