Social (Networking) Butterfly
Name: Ashley Qualls
Location: Southgate, Mich.
Ashley Qualls is an accidental entrepreneur. Her website, Whateverlife.com, which she set up in 2004, was created mainly as a way to share her custom MySpace.com templates with friends and family. But by 2005 her designs had been discovered by a legion of teenage girls who began decorating their web pages with her pink-and-pretty layouts.
"It was always more of a hobby--I never intended to make a bunch of money off of it," Qualls says. "I really just enjoyed making designs and my audience felt that."
That passion led Qualls--AshBo to her internet fans--to buy dedicated server space to host her site. A year later, she dropped out of high school at age 15 (though she later got her GED and an associate's degree) and began her web business in earnest. That meant cranking out 25 to 30 MySpace layouts per day and designs for any other application with customizable content.
By 2006, Whateverlife was drawing as many as 375,000 visitors a day, and advertisers realized AshBo's site was their holy grail--an authentic web hub created by a teen for teens. At one point she was offered a $5 million payday. Instead, she made deals with direct advertisers and, among other things, used Whateverlife's teen clout to help launch the Jonas Brothers. Her success and frequent postings also led to a minor cult of celebrity around Qualls herself, who appeared on The View and at last count had 78,065 friends on MySpace.
Today, Whateverlife has a staff of nine and is on the verge of a major transformation. As the market share of MySpace gets eaten away by the growing popularity of Facebook, which does not allow customizable layouts, Qualls has watched her traffic fall. (The site is bringing in about $30,000 a month in ad revenue, from a high of $70,000 a month.) So Qualls, who turned 19 in June, is morphing Whateverlife into the site she's always dreamed of--a social network focused on web design. Visitors can still grab designs for their sites, but designers can post their layouts for the public to critique and use, and newbies can log in to watch video tutorials on how to create their own layouts.
"This is such big project where young people can learn and share designs and create," Qualls says. "The design world is so big and abundant. I hope other people see it like we do."
To that end, Whateverlife is hiring its first full-time advertising rep instead of leaning on third-party ad clients, and hopes to snag 1 million widget views by the end of 2009 and 100 million in 2010. But the core of the site is still Ashley Qualls, who has funded the relaunch out of her own pocket and keeps her hand on the tiller.
"All the creative control and overall design is still me," she says. "This company came from my heart, and as corny as it sounds, I want to grow it myself."
Jason Daley lives and writes in Madison, Wisconsin. His work regularly appears in Popular Science, Outside and other magazines.