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,"
"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,"
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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