The Internet is still, for lack of a better term, the Wild Wild West. It’s a vast, open space with no rules – although corporations and lawmakers are currently trying to corral that luxury with net neutrality. It’s fun, informational and captivating at all hours of the day. But most important of all, the Internet is the great equalizer. Completely egalitarian. Everyone’s voice gets heard, comprehensively leveling the playing field. And when everyone’s voice is equal, the possibilities – particularly the economic possibilities – are endless.
For those who know how to use it, the World Wide Web is just that – a connection to the entire planet. It’s a forum that allows your voice or original idea to reach billions. Some use it for mindless silliness, like Charlie the Unicorn or “Find the Invisible Cow.” Which, to be fair, holds a warm place in all of our hearts. But the truly industrious have figured out how to use the Internet as a tool to not only make the world a better, more interesting place, but to make themselves an incredible fortune as well along the way.
Entrepreneurs have been able to bend the Internet to their wills, turning an open marketplace and simple ideas into the most lucrative of ventures. With exceptionally low entrance costs of digital business, turning one previously inconceivable concept into a viral sensation netting millions is there for anyone to seize. For some, it happened by accident. For others, it was hard work, wits and calculation. But in every case, the rewards were bountiful.
Here are 10 Internet millionaires who made their fortunes out of thin air, and now walk the Earth like kings.
10. Matthew Mullenweg Makes the Internet Go With WordPress
What better way to make a fortune off of the Internet, than to literally build the foundation on which it’s written? That’s exactly what Matthew Mullenweg did when he created WordPress. The free and open source blogging tool is used by more than 23% of the top 10 million websites on the net and is the most popular blogging system in the world, used by more than 60 million websites globally. In 2014, WordPress was the 23rd most popular site on the web.
As the lead developer, Mullenweg – along with co-founder Mike Little – has embedded the WordPress template in every corner of the Internet. There’s a great chance that nearly all of your favorite blogging sites employ it to get their content to your laptop, tablet or phone. As a result, Mullenweg has a net worth of over $40 million. Not bad for someone who left college early to work at CNET, then quit that within a year to start the company that would create his massively-lucrative product.
Valued today at over a billion dollars, WordPress was able to intrinsically link itself to the ground floor of the modern day Internet. It’s as if architecture suddenly changed, and Mullenweg invented the new type of steel that nearly EVERY building would be built with. Not a bad place to be. And not a bad rocket to ride straight to millionaire status.
9. Dong Nguyen “Flapps” to Millions
It’s every game developer’s dream to create a game that goes viral. Something everyone enjoys, that becomes so fun and addicting it sticks to your bones. A “Candy Crush” or, for the Original Gangstas out there, a “Tetris.” Those games go straight to the hall of fame, earn their creators millions, and can’t be put down by anyone, especially in airports, backseats, and bathrooms all across the world.
Now imagine if you created that game in under two hours, made yourself a fortune, then decided to delete it from the world because it became too much of an “addicting product?” That’s exactly what fledgling game designer Dong Nguyen did in the last year. And it drove the world crazy while pushing his mysterious reputation through the roof.
“Flappy Bird” was downloaded more than 50 million times and rated more than 90,000 times in its almost nine months of existence, making it one of the most addicting games in recent memory. And it made Nguyen approximately $3 million. Not an incredible amount, especially for this list. But what sets it apart is that it earned that profit in just 60 days.
Released in May of 2013, the game got lost in the shuffle amongst thousands of other apps and didn’t gain any traction. Then inexplicably, eight months later it went viral. Ultimately earning Dong $50,000 a day, “Flappy Bird” made its creator into a millionaire almost legitimately overnight. His decision to take it down was met with worldwide incredulity, but the dividends of the game’s legacy had already been paid in spades.
8. David Karp Changes Blogging With Tumblr
David Karp was a teenage wunderkind, working for UrbanBaby at 17. Quickly (very quickly) rising to head of product and equity holder at the company, Karp then left to start his own software consulting company. He became fascinated with tumbleblogging, and kept waiting for one of the established blogging platforms to introduce their own short-form blog. Deciding he didn’t want to wait any longer, he created his own, launching Tumblr in 2007. Within two weeks, the service had gained 75,000 users.
Eight months later, Karp shut down the consulting portion of his business to focus solely on blogging, renaming the company Tumblr, Inc. The business would grow astronomically, currently hosting 209.3 million blogs and recently being acquired by Yahoo! for $1.1 billion.
Karp has stayed on as CEO and is currently worth $200 million – all at the age of 28. The explosive popularity of Tumblr has made it one of the most influential and intrinsic parts of the Internet as we know it today, and the company only keeps expanding. For the young Karp, the future is only getting brighter.
7. Nick Denton Starts a Gawker Empire
Where once there was the Hearst Corporation, now there is Gawker. Founded by Nick Denton in New York City, Gawker Media was run out of his SoHo apartment for years after its debut in 2002.
In only 10 short years since, though, the company has grown into a multimillion dollar empire. The Gawker family of sites now includes Gawker.com, Deadspin, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, io9, Jalopnik and Jezebel – each with its own audience, yet with the same Gawker voice, look and brand.
Denton was an Oxford-educated journalist before deciding to begin his empire. To this day, it has netted him a total worth of $290 million, and his fortune is only growing.
6. Craig Newmark Introduces the World to Craigslist
After working at IBM for 17 years as a programmer, Craig Newmark had his “Ah ha!” moment when he moved to San Francisco in 1993 to work for Charles Schwab. It was there that he was introduced to the Internet. Observing people helping each other in social and trusting ways online, Newmark decided to create a similar site for local events, which began innocently as an email distribution list to friends living in the Bay Area.
Before long, word of mouth grew the company tenfold, as people began helping each other find jobs, secure housing, and sell goods. What would be known as the first “internet commune” was born.
Newmark reaped the benefits almost immediately, and within five years he had a legitimate monster on his hands. Craigslist has since spread like wildfire, currently existing in 70 countries globally. 20 billion page views per month has grown Newmark’s fortune to north of $400 million. The rapid expansion doesn’t seem to have any end in sight, and neither does its founder’s bank account.
5. Peter Thiel Leaves His Mark All Over the Web
Peter Thiel has seen the Internet writing on the wall for years, and as a result is continuously ahead of the curve – and directing capital to his bank account.
In 1998, realizing an online payment system would be needed for the future of the Internet, Thiel founded Paypal with Max Levchin. Later merging with X.com and powerful CEO Elon Musk, the company went public in 2002 and was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion later that year. Thiel made a cool $55 million from that sale alone.
But his footprint on the Web didn’t stop there. In 2004, Thiel made an extremely cheap $500,000 angel investment in a growing social network called Facebook, in exchange for 10.2% of the company. It was the first outside investment in Facebook. When he eventually cashed out all his shares of the now-public company in 2012, Thiel had turned his $500k investment into over $1 billion. It pays to be a couple steps ahead of everyone else.
4. Matt Drudge Rides His “Report” to Millions
Matt Drudge has the fortune of combining ingenuity with being in the right place at the right time. Moving to Los Angeles in 1989, he took a job in the gift shop of CBS Studios, eventually working his way up the ladder. Keeping his ears open, he found himself constantly around Industry gossip. He decided to send what were in effect newsletters about Hollywood to his friends. Mostly gossip and opinion articles at the start, he slowly expanded his readership and changed his forum from email to the web. By 1997, the “Drudge Report” had 85,000 subscribers.
He moved his focus over time to political gossip, and first gained national attention when he broke news of Bob Dole’s presidential running mate for the 1996 election. Two years later, he would cement his place on the national scene by breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal when another news outlet passed.
Today, the news aggregation website has expanded into all corners of the national conversation, making it one of the most viewed sites on the net and leaving Matt Drudge with a net worth of $90 million. In the era of Internet news, Drudge continues to be a major player.
3. Markus Persson “Mines” a Gaming Fortune
Yes, Markus Persson is worth $1.5 billion, and this list is about millionaires. But we’re making an exception for Persson after he created one of the most instantly popular PC games of all time.
In “Minecraft,” players are able to build anything their imaginations can fathom, all in wonderful, pixelated, blocky beauty. The sandbox game has taken on a life of its own only three years after its debut, with users across the world numbering in the millions. What’s more, the intricately detailed worlds, structures and machines (yes, machines – someone built a working computer…somehow) have become almost pieces of art, shared between Internet users around the planet. It’s truly a phenomenon, and it all came from the inner workings of Persson’s brain.
Those inner workings have put Persson in a whole new tax bracket, climbing his net worth to just over $1 billion. A true, creative, digital lottery ticket.
2. Kevin Systrom’s Astronomical Instagram Rise
Everyone knows Instagram. That’s what makes it one of the truly amazing digital inventions of all time. Its unprecedented, meteoric rise to corporate and Internet domination is what lands its founder, Kevin Systrom, on this list.
Instagram became an entity in 2010 and debuted in January of 2011. A month later, it had one million users. On April 3, 2012, it was released for Android phones for their new OS, and it was downloaded more than one million times in less than a day. Later that month, in the second largest acquisition deal to date, Facebook agreed to purchase Instagram for approximately $1 billion. And that, as they say, is the definition of meteoric.
As part of the deal, Kevin Systrom’s net worth is now over $400 million. All from a simple photo-sharing app. What the Internet can do when in the right hands is truly astonishing.
1. E.L. James Fanfiction Becomes Erotic Literary Giant
“Fifty Shades of Grey” is one of the most popular pieces of fiction of all time. Consumed by women (and some men) all across the globe, the sexually-charged trilogy has grossed millions upon millions of dollars, is about to spawn a Hollywood movie, and has made a celebrity out of its author, E.L. James.
What few people know, however, is that James owes her fame and fortune to the Internet. “Fifty Shades of Grey” began as “Twilight” Internet fanfiction published under the title, “Snowqueens Icedragon.” Quickly gaining a following online, James self-published her work and became a massive success in the literary world. Now worth over $80 million, James was able to ingeniously use the Internet to pave her own road. And it’s a road lined with golden bricks. If not for that incredible tool though, her work most likely never would have seen the light of day. Nor change the world the way it has. Truly amazing.