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If your monitor’s resolution is 1366×768, it would cost me $1,049,088 to buy that real estate from you – assuming you were offering it to me at a generous $1 per pixel.
It sounds crazy, right? But paying a buck per pixel for ad space might, in some contexts, make sense. What if this space lasted for five years? What if it was permanent? Just like in real real estate, true value is all about location.
Well, what if you were making this mass-pixel purchase on a site where the entire purpose was simply to generate a million dollars by offering this space? That’s advertising on a website that stands for nothing more than, well… advertising.
If you think this all sounds a little too far out there, let me introduce you to the story of The Million Dollar Homepage.
What is The Million Dollar Homepage?
TMDHP (as I’ll abbreviate it) was created in 2005 by Englishman Alex Tew. His entire scheme was that this website would help him pay his way through a university education.
The thought process behind TMDHP was extremely simple. Tew created a website with a simple header and footer, and between these lines of text was a massive 1000×1000 image. Tew began selling 10×10 chunks of this image to anyone who wanted to purchase one. If you’re having trouble understanding the size of a $100 block of pixels like that, it’s just a bit over half the size of a standard Windows system tray icon (those icons down there by your clock, if you use Windows). Purchasers could use this space for any (clean) purpose they desired, and the most sensible outcome was that buyers would intend to advertise their website or service.
Along with the display pixels themselves, the area that purchasers claimed could also be linked directly to any website that they are advertising. These pixels and links were guaranteed to last until August 26th, 2010 (a total of five years). The website started as a blank pixel slate, similar to what’s shown below.
TMDHP launched on August 26th, 2005 and immediately became an internet sensation. The website’s success was so great that on January 1st, 2006, Tew put the final 1000 pixels up for auction on eBay (rather than selling them for the standard $1000 price). That auction reached a winning bid of $38,100.
Alex Tew made $1,037,100 in five months. His total expenses were €50, covering the cost of the domain name and web space. He didn’t innovate the Internet or create a landmark web service or product. He didn’t change any of our lives. He had a quirky, clever idea and sold pixels on a brand new website, pitching it as a way of owning a piece of Internet history.
And it worked.
Success in Numbers
Three days after completing and launching the website, TMDHP made its first sale of a 20×20 block. 1600 pixels later, Tew felt it was time to begin reaching out to the media. BBC and The Register both picked up on a press release, and by the end of September more than a fourth of the website’s space was sold, netting $250,000.
At the peak of its popularity in 2005, Alexa ranked TMDHP as the third most explosive website, in traffic, behind the official website for Britney Spears and Photo District News. TMDHP grew to 25,000+ unique hits per hour before the final 1000 pixels were decided to be sold at auction.
The auction for the last 1000 pixels reached 99 total bids, after weeding out multiple hoax bids (some of which were over $100,000). At $38,100, the last 1000×1000 block was sold and TMDHP was done. Tew vowed not to create any sort of continuation of the project, as it would damage the integrity and exclusivity of this historic website.
Since the retirement of TMDHP, Alex Tew tried a few other ventures. Despite his promise not to dilute the novelty of his original project, Tew launched a project called Pixelotto, which many dubbed “The Million Dollar Homepage 2”.
Pixelotto worked like this:
- Advertisers buy ads (this time, at $2 per pixel)
- Visitors click on ads, at a maximum of 10 clicks per day
- One month after Pixelotto sells all of its ad space, they randomly select one ad and one person who clicked on it
- 50% of the revenue is awarded to the winner
It was received as a bit of a cash grab, but was pretty successful nonetheless. You can see more information on an archived version of the website. The winner, a Kenyan man, received $153,000.
Tew went on to create PopJam, a social media site where you could chat with strangers, and Sock and Awe!, a game where you toss shoes at former US president George W. Bush. PopJam was similar to Omegle, but never took off. Sock and Awe! was a Flash game with a purpose to promote PopJam. The game received widespread media coverage and millions of hits, but bandwidth issues prompted Tew to sell the site for a humble €5000.
After the dust settled, Tew decided to go back to his roots one more time. In 2010, his next idea was One Million People: a Facebook-powered site that, instead of pixels, was selling one million small photograph slots on a grid. Spots were $3 each. The project didn’t even come close to completion: eventually all of the buyers were refunded and photo listings were given away for free. Still, the mark of one million photos was not reached, but One Million People did inspire a pretty awesome charity project in WaterForward.
Just as the website was initially pitched, TMDHP lives on today as a shrine of Internet history.
The site is still alive and functional, however 221,900 of the million pixels link to dead sites. Another 23,200 pixels link to nothing at all. That’s nearly a forth of the site, and roughly $245,100 worth of pixels, that are now defunctional.
TMDHP’s blog still remains online, and it’s a great resource for understanding Tew’s mindset while all of this was happening. It tracks some pretty interesting developments throughout the website’s lifespan, such as this excerpt:
I can confirm that MillionDollarHomepage.com has been subjected to a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack by malicious hackers who have caused the site to be extremely slow loading or completely unavailable since last Thursday, 12th January 2006.
I can also confirm that a demand for a substantial amount of money was made which makes this a criminal act of extortion. The FBI are investigating and I’m currently working closely with my hosting company, Sitelutions, to bring the site back online as soon as possible. More news soon.
There is also a full pixel list that includes the date, website, and number of pixels purchased for every single buyer.
Though at the time of writing this article it’s marked as unavailable, Firebox offers a full-color poster of the entire pixel sheet at TMDHP’s completion.
Lessons We Learned
There’s probably no other Internet success story that more clearly exemplifies how a creative and unique mind, as well as some developmental skill, can help you make it big. TMDHP was a project founded on novelty. I’ve worked in affiliate marketing, and Internet marketing in general, and think it’s highly unlikely that Tew’s pixel purchasers got their money’s worth out of the high, untargeted traffic that surged through his website. The allure was in the idea itself.
There is no better proof of that than Tew’s failure with One Million People. The Internet was a very different place by then, and the gravitational pull to a “One Million Dollar Homepage 2” just wasn’t as strong as the original. He had a genius idea and he executed it properly – you can’t do that twice.
When simplicity meets ingenuity, the results can be pretty flooring. It’s not restricted to novelty websites like TMDHP, either. From a developer’s perspective, creating a website where users can host images or shorten links amounts to less than a hundred lines of code. Today, we have Imgur and Bitly. Before that, we had very raw and simple websites like TinyPic and TinyURL. These websites found a simple approach to doing something that we all need, executed it, and likely became very wealthy and successful through ad revenue.
Good ideas can be improved upon. However, the effect of novelty is something quite different. This, along with a simple change in times, is why The Million Dollar Homepage worked and One Million People didn’t.
A Piece of Web History
I’d go as far as to call The Million Dollar Homepage one of the most important websites in the history of our Internet. It’s the first million-dollar success story that comes to my mind, and the fact that it was all made possible due to clever thinking and novelty design makes it that much more impressive. Maybe it isn’t one of the best websites on the Internet in terms of functionality, but the way Tew gamed ad space makes his site completely memorable and historic. If it doesn’t live forever on web space, it will definitely live forever in our memory!