Just Managing: The Naked Truth About Danni's Hard Drive

Today's economic back draft has forced a generation of nascent startups to scurry for new resources and strategies. The ebbing of investment capital is starving the growth of many promising companies, while bottom-dwelling stock options have scared away potential star employees. And so many founders are being forced to rethink the fundamental theories behind their businesses.

The most resilient startups, it seems, are those that cultivated the right models and principles at a time when easy money forgave far too many managerial excesses.

Such is the case with Danni's Hard Drive. Danni Ashe was never tempted by too much investment capital or public acclaim. That's because as founder and CEO of Danni's Hard Drive, one of the Web's most successful adult sites, she never had either.

As a former stripper with a 32FF bra size that didn't come from silicone implants, Ashe is eminently qualified to draw traffic to her site. Yet the real story here is not her physical assets, but her managerial education.

Ashe has made the rare leap from owning one wildly successful product (herself), to growing her enterprise into a $7 million annual operation with more than 40 employees and a range of offerings. She owns 100 percent of her company and runs the show, with help from her husband, who left Landmark Theaters to help her with the company several years ago.

When Ashe launched her site in July 1995 she had no prior experience with running a company, or even working at one. Aside from working at an Orange Julius in junior high school, her past career was as a stripper, which she compares to being a self-employed hairdresser who simply pays rent for her station.

Yet Ashe was always fairly comfortable with a computer, and she used one to keep data about her growing fan club. In 1995, she discovered that guys were sharing photos of her over the Internet, so she hooked up a 2400 baud modem and joined the conversation taking place on Usenet. There she found a group of men who were fascinated "not only with women who took their clothes off, but with women in general," she says.

"The conversation I was having online planted the seed for Danni's Hard Drive," Ashe says. "Maybe these guys are more interested in who we (models) are as people than we thought," she says. At the same time, her husband's company had just launched the first Web site for commercial theaters, and a light bulb went off for Ashe. "Suddenly I could see the structure of my Web site in my head," she says.

And so began a series of shrewd moves and lucky events that led to the birth of Danni's Hard Drive. Ashe asked the programmer who had built the Landmark site to create one for her. He turned down her offer of half the business and asked for $900 instead. Ashe eventually taught herself to write HTML code and built the site herself in July 1995.

Ashe's success was immediate. She says she was receiving up to a million hits a day within a couple of weeks, enough traffic to crash her ISPs public server. Her site evolved from a place to sell photos and other "Danni-ware" into a fee-based enterprise in February 96 - and was once again overwhelmed with demand.

Since the day Ashe's site launched, subscribers' rush to pay for the content has barely slowed. At the time, Ashe had neither the infrastructure nor the skills to handle the site's traffic, so she improvised, hiring friends of friends to help her meet demand.

As the business grew, however, Ashe and her employees developed skills. By the end of 1997, she had 13 employees and was beginning to train recruits for Internet careers.

"I can't tell you how many people I have taught to run a computer mouse who now run divisions of Internet companies," she says, referring to people who have gone on to Razorfish (RAZF), for example, or have gone on to found their own Web design shops. She reinvested much of the cash flow directly into her company, which now has 16,000 square feet of office space that includes a digital broadcast facility, production staff, a full array of programmers and 24-hour service. And over the years, Ashe has helped develop technologies, such as programs to help eliminate credit card fraud, that are now being adopted by more-mainstream companies.

Today her site has more than 29,000 subscribers who pay $20 a month to download soft-core porn, gain access to photos and information on models, and view what is virtually burlesque porn, most of it starring Ashe. "I consider myself to be a bit of a Sybil a lot of the time," she says, "There are days when I switch between doing sexy naked things, and then perhaps testifying before the COPA (Child Online Protection Act) commission - and then days when I am just trying to run the business."

From the earliest days of her business, Ashe practiced the time-honored entrepreneurial skills of bootstrapping and discipline. "We built a company that doesn't need outside capital to survive," she says. The company never wasted money on marketing through banner ads or other pricey campaigns; instead, Ashe made a decision to adopt a public persona in order to build her brand.

And the downturn in the dot-com economy has only helped her. "The only real effect the downturn is having on us is an improvement in the available-talent pool," she says, "A year ago at this time, we were having significant difficulties in finding and keeping valuable employees. The lure of get-rich-quick stock option plans and outrageous salary offers from companies with more VC than sense made things pretty tough on us because we just couldn't compete."

Ashe is as modest about her achievements as she is immodest about her body. "It would be false to hold me up as a management genius," she says, attributing her success to a few simple principles. "I've shown up every day, worked hard at it, analyzed my problems and made the best decisions. It comes down to perseverance and dedication. And having fun doing it."

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