Whateverlife turns profitable for teen

Whateverlife turns profitable for teen


$8 loan for domain name grows into million-dollar business

09:55 AM CDT on Friday, October 5, 2007
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT – Like a scene out
of a reality show or a Disney movie, Southgate, Mich., teenager Ashley
Qualls’ moment has arrived.

The 17-year-old entrepreneur,
designer and self-professed computer geek was in New York City
recently, pitching her wildly successful Web site, Whateverlife .com,
to advertising agencies for the country’s biggest companies. And she
made an appearance on The View.

"This is in some ways her coming-out party," said Robb Lippitt, Ms. Qualls’ 38-year-old business consultant.

Ms. Qualls is planning to expand Whateverlife.com, which gets more
visitors than Oprah.com. She wants to start a social network for the
millions of teenage girls who flock to her Web site for free designs to
decorate their MySpace pages.

Whateverlife.com generated
$1 million in revenue last year and is on track to do the same this
year. Already, Ms. Qualls has turned down outside funding for her site
and a verbal offer for $5 million for her company.

"I’m
stubborn and I’m independent," she said from her office in the basement
of her house. "I like the feeling that it’s my company, and I want to
have the say-so in everything."

Early this month, she won
her petition to be declared an adult so she could sign business
contracts and manage her own money. And she sounds like a 30-year-old
when she talks about the struggle to balance work and personal time.

She is not your typical teenager.

Ms. Qualls hired her mother to be her business manager and pays three
friends, all high school seniors, to work for her after school and on
weekends.

A year ago, Ms. Qualls bought a house in a new
subdivision, where she keeps three Himalayan cats and a Rottweiler
named Thor.

Despite a 3.9 grade-point average, she
dropped out of high school after her sophomore year to work full-time
on Whateverlife.com. She now is studying to get her associate degree in
graphic design and a GED.

With her blonde highlights and
vivacious personality, Ms. Qualls doesn’t fit the stereotype of a
computer geek. But she spent seven hours on her living room floor
building her computer.

And while other teens were
playing, Ms. Qualls was teaching herself how to write HTML code so she
could build Web sites.

"I love it," she said. "You can create so many things. The possibilities are endless."

In December 2004, Ms. Qualls borrowed $8 from her mother to buy the
Whateverlife.com domain name. She started the Web site as her personal
graphics portfolio.

But in the uncontrollable,
fast-moving world of cyberspace, others began noticing Ms. Qualls’ site
even though she never has spent a dime on advertising. At the beginning
of last year, Ms. Qualls received e-mails from people informing her
that Carson Daly had mentioned the site on his radio show.

When it comes to Web traffic, Whateverlife.com ranks No. 825 out of
20.3 million Web sites, drawing 2.4 million visitors worldwide during
the last 30 days, according to Quantcast, an Internet ratings service.
Oprah.com is No. 997.

In March, Ms. Qualls hired Mr.
Lippitt, a former chief operating officer of ePrize, to help her. The
biggest challenge she faces, he said, is keeping her finger on the
pulse of her audience as she gets older and her company expands.

"Ashley is a natural entrepreneur," he said. "I expected her to need a
lot more direction and guidance than she actually needs. You only have
to tell her anything once."

As Ms. Qualls gains more experience, expect changes at Whateverlife.com.

To expand its appeal, Ms. Qualls has added an online magazine, a forum
for visitors to chat, and a Web site builder with tutorials. In
mid-October, she said she hopes to begin selling her designs for
cellphone screens.

Ms. Qualls spends her days handling
phone calls and business meetings with advertisers and Mr. Lippitt,
reading the 300 to 400 e-mails she receives each day and coming up with
new designs.

The fledgling entrepreneur is still a
teenager at heart. Ms. Qualls adorns her business card with white
hearts. She said she loves to hang out with her friends at the mall,
listen to the Barenaked Ladies and play Sims 2.

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