By CHUCK SALTER
No rich relatives? No professional mentors? No problem. Ashley Qualls, 17, has built a million-dollar web site. She’s LOL all the way to the bank.
Late last year, Ian Moray stumbled across a cotton-candy-pink Web site called Whateverlife.com. As manager of media development at the online marketing company ValueClick Media, he was searching for under-the-radar destinations for notoriously fickle teenagers. Beyond MySpace and Facebook, countless sites come and go in the teen universe, like soon forgotten pop songs. But Whateverlife stood out. It was more authentic somehow. It featured a steady supply of designs for MySpace pages and attracted a few hundred-thousand girls a day. “Clever design, a growing base–that’s a no-brainer for us,” Moray says.He approached Ashley Qualls, Whateverlife’s founder, about incorporating ads from ValueClick’s 450 or so clients and sharing the revenue. At first, she declined. Then a few weeks later she changed her mind. He was in Los Angeles and she was in Detroit, so they arranged everything by phone and email. They still have yet to meet in person.When did Moray, who’s 40, learn that his new business partner was 17 years old?Pause.”When our director of marketing told me why Fast Company was calling,” says Moray, now ValueClick’s director of media development. “I assumed she was a seasoned Internet professional. She knows so much about what her site does, more than people three times her age.”It’s like that famous New Yorker cartoon. A dog typing away at a computer tells his canine buddy, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”At 17 going on 37 (at least), Ashley is very much an Internet professional. In the less than two years since Whateverlife took off, she has dropped out of high school, bought a house, helped launch artists such as Lily Allen, and rejected offers to buy her young company. Although Ashley was flattered to be offered $1.5 million and a car of her choice–as long as the price tag wasn’t more than $100,000–she responded, in effect, Whatever. 🙂 “I don’t even have my license yet,” she says.Ashley is evidence of the meritocracy on the Internet that allows even companies run by neophyte entrepreneurs to compete, regardless of funding, location, size, or experience–and she’s a reminder that ingenuity is ageless. She has taken in more than $1 million, thanks to a now-familiar Web-friendly business model. Her MySpace page layouts are available for the bargain price of…nothing. They’re free for the taking. Her only significant source of revenue so far is advertising.
The Inc. 5,000
This year, Inc. expands their list of America’s fastest-growing companies tenfold. See who made the list:
Inc. 5,000: Complete List
25 Top Private Firms
25 Top Revenue Producers
25 Youngest CEOs
According to Google Analytics, Whateverlife attracts more than 7 million individuals and 60 million page views a month. That’s a larger audience than the circulations of Seventeen, Teen Vogue, and CosmoGirl! magazines combined. Although Web-site rankings vary with the methodology, Quantcast, a popular source among advertisers, ranked Whateverlife.com a staggering No. 349 in mid-July out of more than 20 million sites. Among the sites in its rearview mirror: Britannica.com, AmericanIdol.com, FDA .gov, and CBS.com.And one more, which Ashley can’t quite believe herself: “I’m ahead of Oprah!” (Oprah.com: No. 469.) Sure, Ashley is a long way from having Oprah’s clout, but she is establishing a platform of her own. “I have this audience of so many people, I can say anything I want to,” she says. “I can say, “Check out this movie or this artist.’ It’s, like, a rush. I never thought I’d be an influencer.” (Attention pollsters: 1,500 girls have added the Join Team Hillary ’08 desktop button to their MySpace pages since Ashley offered it in March.)She has come along with the right idea at the right time. Eager to customize their MySpace profiles, girls cut and paste the HTML code for Whateverlife layouts featuring hearts, flowers, celebrities, and so on onto their personal page and–presto–a new look. Think of it as MySpace clothes; some kids change their layouts nearly as frequently. “It’s all about giving girls what they want,” Ashley says.These days, she and her young company are experiencing growing pains. She’s learning how to be the boss–of her mother, her friends, developers-for-hire in India. And Whateverlife, one of the first sites offering MySpace layouts specifically for girls, needs to mature as well. “MySpace layouts” was among the top 30 search terms on Google in June. Ashley knows that she needs new content–not just more layouts, but more features, to distinguish Whateverlife from the thousands of sites in the expanding MySpace ecosystem. Earlier this year, she created an online magazine. Cell-phone wallpaper, a new source of revenue at 99 cents to $1.99 a download, is in the works.Running a growing company without an MBA, not to mention a high-school diploma, is hard enough, but Ashley confronts another extraordinary complication. Business associates may forget that she is 17, but Detroit’s Wayne County Probate Court has not. She’s a minor with considerable assets–“business affairs that may be jeopardized,” the law reads–that need protection in light of the rift her sudden success has caused in an already fractious family. In January, a probate judge ruled that neither Ashley nor her parents could adequately manage her finances. Until she turns 18, next June, a court-appointed conservator is controlling Whateverlife’s assets; Ashley must request funds for any expense outside the agreed-upon monthly budget.The arrangement, she says, affects her ability to react in a volatile industry. “It’s not like I’m selling lemonade,” she says. Besides, it’s her company. If she wants to contract developers or employ her mother, Ashley says, why shouldn’t she be able to do it without the conservator’s approval?So the teenager has hired a lawyer. She wants to emancipate herself and be declared an adult. Now. At 17. Why not just sit tight until June? The girl trying to grow up fast can’t wait that long.