The Accidental “Friend” Finder

Andrew Conru didn’t aspire to be a sex-industry mogul. But his $200 million empire attests to the old adage: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

  1. You know how you'll be trying to do work, and the Internet will inexorably drag you into porn? That's exactly what happened to Andrew Conru's career.

    A mechanical engineering doctoral student at Stanford who grew up with churchgoing Lutheran parents in northern Indiana—the kind of guy who holds the door for everyone until he gets stuck there so long that someone has to make a joke so he can let go—Conru started the first online dating site, WebPersonals, in the early '90s. He sold it in 1995, pocketed a minor windfall, and started all over again.

    Now he owns 27 sites under an umbrella company called Various, controlling twice as much online dating traffic as better-known rivals and Yahoo Personals. But his clients tend to be much more fun. That's because most of them post pictures in which they're having sex. When you've already seen your date naked, it's a lot easier to focus on what she's saying.

    Of all the dating sites Conru has launched—ones for Latinos, seniors, Asians, Jews, churchgoers—the biggest by far is AdultFriendFinder, which accounts for more than 60 percent of Various's revenue. Conru says his privately held, 450-person company brings in well over $200 million in annual revenue, averaging 40 percent growth for the past nine years. With more than 35 million visitors in 2006 and 75,000 new users registering each day, AFF ranks among the 100 most popular sites in the United States.

    It's become so mainstream that a joke about it appeared in the Diane ...