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Porn to Win

Seattle's Andy Edmond owns the technology that drives the cybersex industry. Can he build an empire on the Internet's g-spot?

WARNING

Please be aware that this article contains hot links that will point your browser to sites that may contain adult content.

THERE WILL BE NO naked women in this story. No shower-cams. No money shots. Andy Edmond's business may be pornography, but he isn't a pornographer per se. Instead, the 27-year-old Seattle entrepreneur is becoming a kind of gatekeeper for the billion dollar X-rated Internet, providing middleman services that make it all possible. "He who controls the distribution of content is going to be king," Edmond likes to say—and there is little doubt, among those in the porn business, that coronation is what Edmond craves. His Seattle company, Flying Crocodile, Inc., already dominates the market for a key piece of software that's "mission critical" to the porn market, and Edmond is moving quickly to take a bite from every other tier of this lucrative business. Says Edmond: "It's very likely that out of the $7 billion market this is going to be in five years, Seattle [i.e., Andy Edmond] is going to own $5 billion of it."

Though unknown in the high-tech city where he does business, Edmond has become a figure of considerable controversy in the anarchic and insular world of global Internet porn, and it's not hard to see why. Beyond his monopolistic ambitions, Edmond is a self-appointed ambassador for porno professionalism, promising to bring new corporate respectability to a wildcat industry, where underage models, credit card fraud, and scams of all kinds have proliferated. "He's a strong advocate of the industry cleaning up its own messes," says Stacy Boyd, editor of the industry trade journal Adult Video News Online.

However, his high-profile efforts have not always been appreciated. "He's made enemies out of a lot of the big players," says Mark Tiarra of United Adult Sites, an industry trade group. "Nobody elected him to be our mouthpiece," complains Lee Noga, a respected industry veteran who runs an online discussion board called OnTheRopes. Noga, and other detractors, contend that Edmond's own house isn't quite tidy enough for him to be lecturing the rest of the industry and that his business has benefited from child pornography and other unsavory practices.

Edmond runs his 100-person company from a purple-themed two-story office above the Icon Grill restaurant on Fourth Avenue. His massive collection of Internet servers is housed in the nearby Westin building (Seattle's high-security telecom nerve center), where Edmond clearly loves to take visitors. Among the racks of mute and blinking boxes, from which graphic images are being pumped out to all corners of the globe, he reels off an impressive list of indecipherable specs and says with a laugh: "RealNetworks [his onetime employer] didn't let me play with the really big toys."

Edmond's love of big-talk and lust for the spotlight inevitably call up comparisons with another young, self-aggrandizing Seattle porn geek: the mightily-fallen Seth Warshavsky, once a media golden-boy for the early promise of p-commerce, now a disreputable entrepreneur in retreat. Warshavsky has been subject to a steady stream of lawsuits alleging unpaid bills, overcharging of customers, trademark violation, etc., and is now reportedly under investigation by the feds.

Edmond's courthouse record appears clean, by contrast, save for a couple of early disputes with local porn purveyors. But there's no telling whether his claims of eight-figure revenue are for real. One former manager at Flying Crocodile asserts that, even now, Edmond's company is struggling to pay its bills, though Edmond denies it.

But the growth of Edmond's privately held firm and the dominance of its flagship product—a piece of software called SexTracker—are undeniable. Says AVN Online's Stacy Boyd: "They're smart, they know what they want to do, and they're going after it. I think if the consensus was that Edmond's odds of success were low, he probably wouldn't be getting the kind of attention he is."

IN PERSON, EDMOND is something of a chameleon. As the occasion demands, he can be the brusque, chain-smoking, speed-talking star of an illicit industry, waving his "I porn" cigarette lighter in your face with a grin. Or he can be the controlled, mainstream corporate smoothie, wowing the boardroom with his flow of MBA jargon, asking and answering his own questions ("Have we been effective? Absolutely"). Two years ago, associates recall, Edmond wore ragged shoulder-length hair and multiple piercings. These days he's more GQ-groomed and dons the shiny suit fabrics favored by the more stylish high-tech moguls.

Over coffee and cigarettes, with his brother and full-time public relations manager J.T. in tow, Edmond recently explained to me how he got into the e-porn business and how he sees it evolving in the coming years. "The biggest transformation you're going to see is our dominance of the way the entire adult Internet works," he opined.

Though a confirmed computer geek, Edmond spent two years studying "botanical shamanism" and the cultural uses of plants at the University of Wyoming in his early 20s. He founded and led a Web community known as the Lycaeum, which is devoted to psychedelic drugs of all kinds and which still thrives today. But, Edmond observes, "botanists make $16,000 a year. That's not my style." Upon arriving in Seattle in 1996, Edmond spent a few months at Real before setting out with his partner Ross Perkins to crack the adult business.

Like his friends at Real, or in Redmond for that matter, Edmond has succeeded by establishing the standard for a critical utility. In his case that product is a Web site traffic counter called SexTracker. The counter is a crucial nexus, a g-spot, in the complex economics of Internet porn.

One of the key features of the online porn economy, Edmond observes, is the lack of significant brands: "The only brand is sex, and nobody owns that." (Indeed the ongoing battle over who exactly owns the Web address "sex.com" is emblematic of this vacuum.) In the absence of recognized brand names to act as magnets for Web surfers, the central concern of the business becomes the movement and direction of Web traffic—of surfers looking for porn, often very specific kinds of porn. And that's where Flying Crocodile has directed its attention.

In this economy, traffic is the currency. There are something like 400,000 sites on the Web offering free pornographic images, according to Edmond. Their sole purpose, and sole means of livelihood, is to send visitors on to the 1,000 or so sites that actually offer "the good stuff" and require a subscription fee. For every visitor they deliver to the pay sites, the free sites get a little kickback.

This model is far from unknown in the rest of e-commerce. A company like Amazon.com has hundreds of online "affiliates" who get a cut of any sales they generate by linking back to Bezos and Co. ("Find books about 'narcolepsy' at Amazon!" etc.). But in the adult world these alliances are significantly more complex and far-reaching. "We're unlike any mainstream business," says Steven Stout, head of Coldsex.com. "Sears isn't going to send traffic to Kmart. But in the adult world we do."

It's a vast, interconnected, and faintly desperate landscape of shrill hype and overlit genitalia, where no site is an island and where Webmasters will obnoxiously seize control of your browser, refusing to let you leave, as they throw up one "exit console" after the next, offering, in succession, live fucking, interracial blow jobs, teen pussy, hot animal action—anything that might get you to stop, click, and, eventually, surrender a credit card number. (Some sites even have the astounding ability to hijack your monitor, repeatedly toggling you back to their Web page even as you try to work on your spreadsheet program.)

Flying Crocodile is one of the biggest ringleaders in this game of traffic management. It is one of the largest "hosts" for free porn sites, which means it provides a basic template for the Webmasters and sends their content out into the world with its giant bank of servers. "It's mainly mom-and-pop garage operators," says Bill Aldrich, Flying Crocodile's head of marketing. Since porn is heavy with images and streaming video, the bandwidth requirements are immense, and Flying Crocodile, according to one industry measure, has one of the 25 largest commercial networks in North America. In return for providing this free hosting service, Edmond's company lays claim to ad banners on each of these thousands of free sites. It then sells those ads to a network of pay sites, while reserving some to promote itself.

THE SEXTRACKER TRAFFIC counter, and the statistics it generates, is central to this economy. "A Webmaster cannot exist in this business without some kind of tracking software," says Webmaster Lee Noga. "And SexTracker happens to be good."

With the counter, the person who runs an individual sex site can know where his visitors are coming from, what banner or link they clicked on to arrive there, whether they are a new or a repeat visitor, what parts of the site they lingered on most, what hours they visited, what they clicked on to leave, etc. "That information is absolutely essential," says Sam Agboola, marketing director for Danni.com, one of the most popular softcore subscription sites. "Without it, you don't know what you're doing with your money."

Based on those stats, a Webmaster can form closer alliances with sites that are linking to him, reward those that are generating traffic, and evaluate the effectiveness of his different ad banners. "You send a little traffic my way, I'll send a little traffic your way" is the guiding credo of the adult Webmasters, and the counter makes sure everyone comes out even.

Counters existed before Edmond's company came on the scene, but SexTracker, which Edmond and his partner Perkins developed and released in early 1998, was generally regarded as a superior product—less susceptible to fraud and providing more refined info. "They did it more professionally and the stats were more accurate," says Mark Tiarra, head of United Adult Sites. "The whole look and feel of it, and the way they behaved, was more corporate and professional."

Lee Noga estimates that at least seven out of 10 adult Web sites now use the free SexTracker counter. She calls it "a perfect mousetrap." Why? Because what Edmond gets in return for his software is a little button displayed on every page of his customers' Web sites. The button flashes, alternating between a porn image and the SexTracker logo. Anyone who clicks on that button—and a certain percentage of the traffic always will—is taken to www.sex tracker.com.

Here is where Edmond took the traffic counter, combined it with the free hosting, and turned it into something that could be expanded into an empire. At SexTracker's home page, visitors are offered a Yahoo-like directory to 30,000 sex sites counted by SexTracker, cross-referenced according to your every fetishistic desire and searchable by keyword: "anal," "cumshots," "watersports," "panty peeks," "twinks," and on and on. The surfer "thinks he died and went to paradise," says Webmaster Noga. "And now he becomes a SexTracker fan and will go there to find out, 'Give me all the bondages that have 'rope' in it.'"

SexTracker also ranks the sites by popularity. Thirty thousand free sites are divided into a dozen categories—gay, Asian, hardcore, amateur, etc.—and ranked each day on their traffic, as measured by the SexTracker hit counter. Says Noga: "Imagine what that tells a surfer: 'Well, gee, these are the top 10 sites in this category. If they got that much traffic, they gotta be good. What am I missing?'"

All of these tools help make sure that surfers get drawn into the porn pod where they are most likely to convert to a paying customer. "Whoever can target traffic the best wins," says Ron Amodeo, marketing manager for SexTracker. The SexTracker rankings, and the exposure they offer, provide a "built-in self- motivator" for Webmasters to use Edmond's counter, as Noga puts it. "At some point," she says, "with all these 30,000 Webmasters harvesting traffic, Andy's going to get a piece of everybody's action."

Flying Crocodile has branched out into numerous other services for porn purveyors, such as domain name auctions, banner ad exchanges, and so on, making the SexTracker site both a surfer's portal and a b-to-b tool for Webmasters. Edmond says the company is also pouring "millions of dollars" into a new credit card processing subsidiary—a low-margin, but extraordinarily important, business for the adult Net.

Eventually, says Edmond, his firm will provide service "from eyeball to the bank account, with infrastructure technology that allows those raw eyeballs to turn into raw dollars for everybody down the chain. It's full vertical integration all the way through the entire marketplace."

The only thing missing is what Seth Warshavsky made his name on: Women waving their privates at the camera, among other acts. Eventually, Edmond says, his company will be rich enough to start buying up the big content producers as well, so as to achieve maximum pornographic efficiency.

"Once we control the infrastructure, acquisition [of content] is going to be much less complicated," says Edmond, between cigarette puffs. "In other words, you couldn't put Arnold Schwarzenegger's muscles on me or you. But if you had the proper skeleton there, you could. And that's what we're doing. Skeleton first, muscle later."

EDMOND'S COMPETITORS laugh at these Charles Atlas ambitions. "That sounds like nonsense to me," says Mike Strouse, CEO of Porncity.net, a giant Minneapolis company that goes head-to-head with Flying Crocodile in a number of businesses and controls more traffic overall. "I think they're better at going out and telling people they're great" than actually accomplishing anything, Strouse says. Porncity recently launched its own counter and Strouse claims it is "already two-thirds their size" and will be "dominant" within three months. Besides, Strouse says, "There's an uncomfortable feeling about [Flying Crocodile] in the industry. It's mainly around their CEO."

Indeed the controversy surrounding Edmond erupts regularly at cybersex trade shows, on Webmaster message boards, and on industry gossip sites. A two-part opus entitled "Andy Edmond: Messiah or Very Naughty Boy?" was recently posted by Luke Ford (LukeFord.com), a sort of Matt Drudge of the porn world. The unease has as much to do with Edmond's desire to be the industry's moral policeman as it does with any of his business practices.

"There are certain pioneers who made this industry what it is, guys who implemented the technology that made the business," says Kevin Blatt, a former colleague of Edmond's. "Andy has very little respect for these people. He came out and said, 'I want to get rid of these people, they're scumbags, there's a new sheriff in town and his name is Andy Edmond.' That's where a lot of people's resentment lies."

Joe Elkind is one such member of the porn establishment. His company, Cyber Entertainment Network, in Fort Lauderdale, is one of the pay site giants. When I ask him about Edmond, he says (between asides to someone called "honey"): "We don't do business with him because of the kid's ego. There are four or five of us that won't do business with him. He's a loose cannon."

Edmond has inserted himself into the debate on several key areas of industry vulnerability. For example, when American Express announced a few months ago that it would no longer process transactions for the adult Internet, Edmond fired off a letter to the company threatening "a massive consumer education program about American Express policies and how they limit consumer freedom." "I let them know we have weapons," Edmond tells me; with the SexTracker button popping up on thousands of Web pages, "we control 55 million users' opinions everyday."

Although Edmond's campaign received plenty of media attention, it got little support from the other adult players, who prefer to operate in a quieter manner. "He stepped on a lot of toes," says Mark Tiarra of United Adult Sites.

Edmond has also been vocal on child porn, which he calls the "Achilles issue" for the business. Over the past two years, the amount of child pornography online has been doubling every six months, Edmond says. More than half of it originates in Russia. "Legally, the liability is not on our industry to deal with this issue," says Edmond. (As a "common carrier," Flying Crocodile, like a phone company, probably can't be prosecuted for what gets sent across its wires.) "But from a PR, awareness, and ethics perspective, we've decided to take an advocacy role."

In June, Edmond became the first industry figure to testify before the COPA Commission, a DC panel charged with making recommendations to Congress about enforcement of the Child Online Pornography Act. Saying he spoke on behalf of the "Adult Online Community," Edmond essentially called for Internet-wide adoption of his company's own solution: An automated reporting mechanism called iQcheck, which would allow surfers to report incidences of child porn, or other illegal content, back to Flying Crocodile. Edmond's company would then notify the proper authorities. However, this system would only work for sites that agreed to carry the iQcheck link and logo—a kind of Good Housekeeping seal—which is about the last thing that those seeking child pornography, and those who supply it, would care about.

Edmond's critics are unimpressed with the effort, pointing out that Edmond's business has been partly built on free sites that are often rife with illegal imagery. "This is like a guy burning down a field, and then coming out and hosing it down to get the notoriety and fame and fortune," says Kevin Blatt.

"He runs a free host that is rampant with copyright violation, rampant with child pornography and bestiality," says John Copeland, a veteran porn photographer. (Indeed the SexTracker site features links to such destinations as "Farmer Joe's Fuck Fest: Teen girls fucking my farm animals!" and "Illegally young virgins fucking by their gardians [sic].") "He promotes some of the most unethical Web sites out there. And now he's trying to buy respectability," says Copeland, who calls iQcheck "just a joke. It's a complication of the process. It's not going to streamline anything."

"Child pornography does exist on some of our free hosting sites," Edmond admits, "just as much as hate appears on Geocities. We take care of 50 percent, maybe, of the child pornography on our sites. It's going to shoot up to 99 percent once we have the automated solution in place." Edmond has recently taken a few other steps to clean up his frontyard, such as disabling "lolita"—a favored search term for those seeking child porn—from the SexTracker search engine. (Though dozens, if not hundreds, of SexTracker-linked sites still advertise "lolitas".)

Edmond's credibility as a moral crusader is undercut, for some, by his continued association with Lycaeum.org. The online community he started in college still flourishes today, providing hallucinogenic drug recipes and a large archive of drug experience accounts. "Here's a guy that wants to protect people from kiddie porn," says Blatt. "At the same time he's going to teach your 12-year-old how to make GHB in the basement. Everything's kind of a paradox with him."

Edmond has tried to distance himself somewhat from the site, though without disavowing its drug-friendly ideology. Edmond describes the project as "an early post-adolescent experience that allowed me to find myself as a unique individual. Do I have anything against it? Have my opinions changed on rights, ethics, policy? Not at all. As far as actually being active? Very little. It is a total sideline project for me at this point in time." He says that Lycaeum's two main operators are in San Francisco. The site is hosted by Flying Crocodile, however, and records show the domain name was re-registered to Edmond this past May.

THE ADULT INTERNET came of age during a free and easy era, when the Oval Office itself could have made money sending out live video streams. But there's growing anxiety now, "a general consensus in the industry that, with the elections coming up, the political climate could seriously change," says Stacy Boyd of AVN Online. (George W. may be scary enough; but how about Tipper teamed up with an Orthodox Jew?)

With the threat of a domestic political crackdown, Edmond's clean-and-corporate image could become very valuable to this industry, whose primary players generally go by names like Fantasyman and D-Money and stay out of the public eye. "Andy figures if you tell the government you are the solution, they won't think you're the problem," says Webmaster Lee Noga.

Edmond's decision to bring in mainstream executives with no experience in the porn world—such as 42-year-old marketing chief Bill Aldrich, who previously worked for KIRO-TV and the venerable Cole & Weber ad agency—may give the firm greater credibility with consumers and regulators.

But it's not certain how the corporate approach will ultimately affect Flying Crocodile's success. Insiders report that Edmond's company has experienced considerable turmoil lately, with several top-level departures, including the company president. According to LukeFord.com, the company has even fallen behind on some of its bills. J.T. Edmond, the firm's PR man, insists that the delay is simply the result of some end-of-fiscal-year accounting requirements and asserts that the company has enough money to meet its obligations.

Andy Edmond seems quite earnest in his desire to make over an industry whose early rule of conduct he describes as "steal or be stolen from." "We clearly recognize our responsibilities," he recently wrote, while under fire again on a Webmaster bulletin board, "and are making transformations that involve, literally, thousands of people as quickly as humanly feasible." Edmond will probably continue to take the heat for widespread problems that are not, strictly speaking, of his own making. But it's a messy business he's in—one that may never be quite fit for a king.

 
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