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The next time you're sitting around thinking up wacky ideas for making money, take yourself seriously. Dan Roy did.
The sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science was toying with the idea of installing a webcam at his fraternity. That not-so-good idea led to another, better plan for letting people put photos of themselves on the web so that visitors could rate their physical attributes on a 1:10 scale. The idea caught on like wildfire.
"The reaction was viral. I immediately recognized that this idea was catchy because it pulls right at the heart of things," said Mr. Roy, who hails from Southern California.
"It's a universal question: Am I attractive to the opposite sex? There's no way you're going to get a straight answer from people who know you," he said.
It took him a couple of days to write the software and start AmIHot.com, a web site that allows users to rate photos of willing subjects. Within three days, the web site had received 600,000 hits.
That was a year ago. The site now gets more than 10 million hits a day and has spawned at least 10 competitors -- none of which is as good as AmIHot.com, according to Mr. Roy. For instance, on AmIHotOrNot.com, one of his competitors, "everybody is a 9.9," he said, an indication that that the ratings are being adjusted. He rarely adjusts ratings except in extreme cases. "Someone could be online just clicking on 1 so they can get to the next photograph," he said, and those votes shouldn't count.
"My site is the most accurate. It takes into consideration who you are and how many votes you cast. It makes it hard to vote for a photo more than once," he said.
His is the only site that has a message board behind it, he said, so if people want, they can receive e-mail responses to their photos. The site even claims responsibility for one marriage. "We get tons of messages saying, 'I met someone in my area and now we're dating.'"
The largest user segment is men ages 18-35, but plenty of women use the site as well.
The average woman's photo on his site rates a 6; men average a 5. Mr. Roy put his own photo up right away and got a 6.5. Over time, that improved. He's now a 7. He said his maternal grandmother posted her photo. She's a 10.
"There is some truth in numbers. Some of the photos have over 6,000 or 7,000 hits a day, and at that level, it's probably pretty accurate," he said.
The 20-year-old Roy has his own theory about beauty. "There are those people who are above a certain threshold that are universally considered beautiful, like Brad Pitt. But in the midrange, it's completely subjective. It depends on how much a person looks like you -- you know, with similar features, only feminine or masculine. I can look at a picture of a woman who's not a supermodel and I might think she looks great. But my friend might not find her attractive," he said.
The site got a tremendous boost last October, when Howard Stern logged on during his radio show and began rating photos. ("He gave guys with low scores higher scores," said Mr. Roy.) Before that, the site was getting from 100,000 to 1 million hits a day. That night, the site got a couple of million hits in a couple of hours and the MIT computer squad had to shut down the site to keep its server from crashing.
"From that moment on, it's taken two to three hours a day to maintain the site," he said, which is hosted now by an Internet service provider in Florida. Mr. Roy has hired people to maintain the message board; money comes in through banner ads on the site and fromsales of "Am I Hot?" T-shirts, featuring the site's logo designed by Mr. Roy's 18-year-old brother. His father, a TV producer in Los Angeles, manages the business side of the site so Dan can concentrate on school and volleyball. His mother, a clinical social worker, holds the record for administering the most messages -- 800 per hour.
"There's definitely some significant money to be made here. We're on the cusp of that," said Mr. Roy, who added that January was the first month the site turned a profit.
"How long can this last? If it can last forever, it will be like growing money on trees," he said. "Ideally, maybe it will pay for MIT. But I don't want this to take over my life. It would be a waste of my education to work on AmIHot.com."
"In the beginning, I had hoped it would be something that I wouldn't have to do anything to, and just make enough money to spend on weekends," he said.
So does he have any money to spend this weekend?
"None," he said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 14, 2001.