A Collegiate Entrepreneur's Mantra: 'Understand Your Audience'

Matt Silverman, a George Washington student, runs several Web sites that make him
Matt Silverman, a George Washington student, runs several Web sites that make him "low five figures." (Courtesy Of Matt Silverman)
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By Thomas Heath
Monday, July 28, 2008

Staff writer Thomas Heath's Value Added column appears Tuesdays on the WashBiz blog. Most weeks, it profiles local entrepreneurs, discussing how they make money and what they do with it.

Matt Silverman is a fifth-year student at George Washington University, where he expects to graduate with a master's degree in information systems in December. He is a Web geek. He gets his news from Digg.com, Slashdot.org, Reddit.com and the Drudge Report.

Silverman belongs to the school's Web ventures club and sprinkles his conversation with phrases like "social media optimization" and "search engine optimization." I wish I had his entrepreneurial drive when I was 22.

Silverman has several Web-based ventures, including a site focusing on Chipotle Mexican Grill and one that aggregates videos. He also earns money designing Web pages for businesses. His sites don't make a ton of money. They earn "somewhere in the low five figures," which is enough to pay the rent, take his girlfriend out in New York City and give him some walking-around cash.

Not bad. I was still asking my parents for money when I was his age.

Silverman provides an instructive lesson for young entrepreneurs who want to launch start-ups and begin careers in the online world. Even 50-somethings like me can learn from him.

"You have to understand your audience and why the Web sites they visit are so successful. What do those sites do? What will make people come back to your Web site? That's very difficult to do," he said.

Silverman's been living on the Web since he built his first page as an eighth-grader in Evanston, Ill., one of Chicago's northern suburbs. Then, as a high school student, he often ate at Chipotle. That's when he started ChipotleFan.com.

"I made it my senior year in high school," said the business school student. "I was interested in the calories and couldn't get info easily on the Chipotle company Web site. So I built a Web site and put a calculator on the site."

ChipotleFan.com gets about 3,400 unique visitors a day, runs on its own and has ads from Google, Amazon.com and other sources. In addition to finding out how many calories there are in that tortilla you just ate, you can share Chipotle-clone recipes and have a discussion on the latest products. You can even build your own image of a burrito.

Silverman said he averages a couple of hundred dollars a week from the ads on the site.

"ChipotleFan runs itself," he says.

Last summer, he had an idea to pick the best videos from YouTube, Metacafe and CollegeHumor.com -- all busy video sites -- and put the most popular ones on a single site. He went to GoDaddy.com, paid $9 for a domain name and launched BestViral.com. He has spent about $2,400 creating the site.

BestViral.com draws about 1,200 unique visitors a day and makes money, though not a lot. In December, its traffic spiked to 2.5 million when viewers flocked to a Fox News video about dirty hotel-room glasses. Silverman made a bunch of money on all those page views. He spends about 45 minutes a day updating BestViral.

Silverman also has a business called MattSilv.com, through which he does Web page design and programming. He wants to work for Google's New York City office when he graduates and create online products for the company.

"I would say one of the most important things is if you see something you like, just research it. I look at the best of the best sites and what they do and ask myself how I can provide something that's like it with value added," Silverman said. "I was always visiting Break.com, where I would watch videos to satisfy this daily urge to see new content. That's what a lot of sites have -- fresh content that helps drive visitors every day."

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