No Business Like e-Business
Keyen Farrell is among young entrepeneurs using Web to build early business success
By Brendan Sullivan '06
Photography by Fred Field
Published May 9, 2006 | Issue: Spring 2006
Photo by Fred Field
When most economics majors go to sleep at night, they dream of running a successful business. Keyen Farrell '07 goes to bed every night having already done that"and, boy, does he sleep well. "It's the greatest feeling to know that you'll wake up richer in the morning than when you fall asleep every night," he said.
Farrell, 20, begins his day by checking into his online business that has put him "in the top one percent in income in the U.S." he said. He started the company, Topaz Financial, as a senior in high school for a little over $200 (he's invested more since) in software design costs, and since then he has enjoyed exponential returns.
In essence, Farrell operates a Web site that funnels customers to companies that sell products like insurance and credit cards online. Every month his advertisers pay him for his services. He, in turn, pays people who have signed up through his site, sending them money through PayPal, the online payment service.
Simple enough? Well, yes and no.
Farrell bids on popular Google search words, like "loan quote." Every time someone searches for one of Farrell's bid words, a link to his Web site appears, either on the Google page or on partner sites that post Google ads. Each time someone clicks his link, Farrell pays Google his bid amount, usually about 25 cents. With millions of searches flooding Google every day, he gets more than 1,000 visits to his Web site daily.
Once someone clicks on the link to his Web site, a new screen loads. It asks for the person's name and e-mail address and then directs the inquirer to a list of free offers from Farrell's contracted advertisers, from credit card offers to loan quotes.
And here's how Farrell distanced himself from similar businesses: when he started the company, he figured that users needed an incentive to sign up for the cards and quotes, so he literally pays customers to fill out applications.
Farrell offers users of his site anywhere from $1 to $5 to sign up for the offers. On average Farrell receives about $14 for each offer completed. The $14 is deposited in his bank account, and he forwards the promised $1-$5 to the user's account.
While he typically makes no more than $15 per transaction, Farrell's pioneering cash incentive model lands him about 3,000 transactions per month, he said. While reluctant to reveal the Web site's actual earnings, Farrell explained that he "has enough to buy some time after college and a few things on the side." Not bad for a 20-year-old who admittedly only works on his business eight hours per week.
But is this all too good to be true? Not at all, said one industry expert. "It's definitely legit, and it's a huge part of Internet advertising with high profit margins," said Barry Parr, media analyst for Jupiter Research in New York. "The Internet levels the playing field for everybody, and you can get [a business] moving pretty quickly because the market is so huge."
With that global market, the income adds up. It's allowed him to start to save for retirement and to make a few acquisitions. "It was nice telling BMW's financing department that I would not be using their services when I bought a new X5," he admitted.
But in a time of extreme competition on the Internet, Farrell has had to save more than money.
During a recent visit to a popular software design Web site, he came across a startling request: someone had offered to purchase an exact copy of his Web site from an unscrupulous Web-designer. "They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but I was far from flattered," Farrell said.
One of the first principles he learned in microeconomics at Colby centered on barriers to entry to a market. Farrell later realized there were few barriers to enter his market. Very little start-up capital is needed and people were catching on to his tried-and-tested idea. So instead of fighting the competition, he's decided to adapt to it.
He plans to sell template copies of his Web site to other entrepreneurs for about $1,000. If buzz on message boards and Web sites is any indication, there will be a healthy initial demand. Parr, the consultant, warns that Farrell's template alone does not guarantee success. "It's like all businesses. The people who succeed are extremely driven," he said.
But Farrell also plans to offer consulting services to his franchisees, ultimately phasing out his Web site completely and consulting full-time. "I can't do the same thing forever. I have to keep changing to keep up," he said.
While no one can say definitively whether Farrell's business-savvy ideas will translate to bigger and better things down the road, Parr has seen his kind before. "His business is not just a get-rich-quick scheme that anyone could do," he said. "He's the type of person, I would assume, that would excel at any type of business endeavor."
Farrell, meanwhile, is eyeing new markets. "[Economics] Professor Phil Brown's Jan Plan trip to China exposed me to opportunities outside of the U.S.," he said, before leaving to spend the spring semester in New Zealand.
That is not to say that Farrell is all business. In fact, he has used some of the fruit of his labors to help him relax. He recently bought a second sailboat for cruising on Long Island Sound near his Connecticut home, "something I never could've done before," he said.
Back on land, Farrell will continue to sleep well. "There's no business like e-business," he said.