Growing up, one of my favorite games was Ultima 7. A classic RPG with some revolutionary features thanks to the brilliant mind of Richard Garriott (aka Lord British). In 1997, Lord British was in his prime and on the brink of releasing the world’s first MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) Ultima Online. This was the great grandfather to games such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and Eve. Honestly, it was probably one of the greatest and most well thought out games ever.
It was at this very same time that my parents moved the family to Poway, CA which was one of the worlds first communities to receive broadband internet via Cable Modem. This is important to the story because the game was online and my connection was significantly (20x) faster than everyone else’s. My avatar in the game could literally run laps around other players. Therefore, I was able to achieve quests faster, find new rare objects faster, and most importantly I was able to find bugs faster. Bugs such as, ‘how to duplicate gold’ by crossing server lines and dropping the gold on one side of a server to confuse the two.
I began documenting and sharing these bugs on a small website that I had made. Shortly thereafter, a reader suggested “you should charge people for these.” and a lightbulb went off in my head. I partitioned the website into 2 sections. A free section that displayed day-old bugs/cheats/hacks and a “Skunk Works” section that displayed the zero-day information to customers willing to pay a small fee.
How did they pay? Well for a 15 year old when the internet was first starting, it was very difficult to get paying customers. I told potential customers to mail me checks or money wrapped in paper towels to prohibit postal theft. I left the amount up to the customer. Suggested “donation” was $5-10 for a lifetime subscription, they could pay me or they could donate the money to a designated charity. OR the user could send a bug/cheat/hack and if we published it, then they would receive a free lifetime subscription. Thanks to this, my site became one of the first sources of crowdsourced information. The envelopes started rolling in, about 3/4 people would write the check to my name instead of donating the money to charity. Even-so, I donated lots of money to some great charities such as the National Kidney Foundation.
Then the e-mails started flying in – “Why do I have to snail mail you money, why can’t I use my credit card?” Again, a lightbulb went off in my head. So I set off to figure out how to accept credit cards and develop a secure membership area. At that time the only places accepting credit cards online were adult websites. I figured out who their provider was and contacted them. At no point did they ask my age (I was 16 at the time). They fast-tracked me for approval and within 2 weeks I was accepting credit cards online. The first day I could accept credit cards, I did over $1000. My mind was blown.
Up until this point, I hadn’t told my parents what I was doing. I had to explain to them that I was making over $1000/day. They were equally worried and impressed. Their concerns revolved around taxes, legalities, privacy, and the internet in general. I consulted with an accountant and figured out the financial part of it. At that point I thought it would be great to get someone else to do the work for me. That way I could relax and enjoy my new riches. Great idea right?
I did everything an inexperienced 16 year-old could do with newfound money. I bought a brand new mustang, mopeds, motorcycle, and anything you could buy on eBay at the time. Burning through the cash as quickly as I could possibly make it. I also resumed being a normal 16 year-old hanging out with my friends and doing all the stupid stuff I could. Neglecting my website and letting someone else run it without proper incentives and management was by far the worst thing I could have done to my successful business. At the same time competitors that saw my success had quickly caught up and surpassed my efforts.
One of the last things I had done was setup a small eBay style clone to sell virtual goods in the game. Gold, rare items, virtual property, were among the things sold. It was starting to do well but, the website itself was quickly spiraling downwards. As you probably know, the selling of virtual goods online flourished and became a multi billion dollar business that I was on the forefront of. Unfortunately, I blew my opportunity due to lack of knowledge and motivation. I completely relinquished control to a volunteer and watched the website crumble from the sidelines. There were many valuable lessons that I learned from this business venture. I managed to save some of the money to fund part of my college education and textbooks. It was such an exciting time in my life and I treasure the experience for all of these great lessons in entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, this experience didn’t leave me rich monetarily like it could have, instead it left me rich in knowledge and experience.
Hopefully by reading this you’ll have learned a couple lessons about my lack of “vision” for the company. Please use the comment section to share what you think. I’d love to answer your questions and hear your thoughts about my first major business and failure.
TL;DR – I made over $1000/day when I was 16 with a site that shared cheats for an online video game. It was one of the worlds first crowd sourcing, subscription based services websites. I bought a brand new mustang, motorcycle, tons of eBay junk and anything else an inexperienced 16y/o entrepreneur could buy. Due to lack of oversight the website fizzled and I went back to being a teenager.