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The Geek-Kings of Smut

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Mansef’s and Interhub’s assets were sold to a German named Fabian Thylmann. One of the less heralded aspects of the migration of the world’s skin flicks online has been a sociological shift among those who make and distribute them. Unlike the gold-chain-wearers of yesteryear—the Boogie Nights–style performers turned directors and photographers turned producers—the new pornographers are as likely to be software engineers: masters of affiliate marketing, search-engine optimization, and traffic-conversion ratios. The Brazzers founders were hardly lady-killers. (According to Antoon, not one ever set foot on a porn set.) And Thylmann is blunt when talking about how he got into the business: “I was a geek,” he says, from his home in Aachen, Germany.

Thylmann has been programming since he was 17. He began writing software to collect Internet-traffic statistics, and because porn was generating most of the web’s traffic, he ended up getting work writing code for adult websites. In the early aughts, he wrote an affiliate-tracking software package called NATS that came to dominate the industry. By late 2006, he had cashed out of the company he had co-founded and started looking around for other companies to buy.

His first purchase was PrivatAmateure, a micro-smut site that “was doing tube-ish logic, it just wasn’t free.” He found that by making some simple tweaks he was able to double profits within three months. “That’s basically where I figured out that it seems to be an awfully good thing to buy adult websites in the current climate, because you can get things cheap, and there are obvious ways to improve what they’re doing.” In the last few years, Thylmann has been on an acquisitions tear. He bought another European amateur site (MyDirtyHobby), a cam site (Webcams.com), and xTube. By March 2010, he owned both Mansef’s and Interhub’s assets, too, including the Brazzers and Mofos paysite networks and four tube sites. GFYers gossiped that he spent $140 million on the purchase, which Thylmann confirms is “close enough.”

“I get excited making videos. xTube gave me another outlet for my sexual energy, so I stopped slutting around in real life.”

Since then, the company has been making a strong bid for respectability. Right away, Thylmann changed the corporate name to Manwin and sponsored a safe-sex campaign, “Get Rubber,” featuring porn-star PSAs and a billboard in Times Square. He spent $1 million to license nonexclusive content, buying 22,000 DVDs containing 100,000 scenes, and adopted anti-piracy digital-fingerprinting software.

Between December 2009 and December 2010, Manwin says, its pretax earnings increased more than 40 percent. The tube sites are responsible for half of that growth—and now for half of the company’s bottom line. But Manwin is also diversifying, from a Fleshbot-style industry blog called ZZ Insider to more mainstream fare. In June, Manwin launched Videobash.com, a Funny or Die knockoff, and in November it rolled out TMZ-like Celebs.com. The company is also one of the two leaders in mobile-phone porn in North America, handling 4.5 million visitors a day. And Thylmann has continued to make acquisitions, both within the Manwin corporate umbrella (a tube site named Spankwire) and without (a company called Eurorevenue, with a network of European paysites). Thylmann now has 500 employees, including 324 in the Manwin office in Montreal. He owns four of the ten most trafficked tube sites. His Brazzers and Mofos brands shoot around 120 scenes a month. At 32, he is likely the biggest porn tycoon on the planet.

“It’s a huge misconception that the industry is doing badly,” Feras Antoon tells me over rib eye and lobster tail at Delmonico, the Emeril Lagasse steakhouse at the Venetian in Las Vegas. “It’s moved on. It’s as simple as that.” And he insists that the tubes haven’t cannibalized paid content: People who consume only free porn, he argues, are people who, in the past, would not have consumed any. The people who paid for porn then will still pay for it now. Plus the tube sites have so vastly enlarged the total universe of porn consumers that the number of those who pay has ballooned along with it. Ten years ago, total daily adult-site traffic averaged less than 1 million unique visitors—on the entire Internet; today Manwin’s tube sites alone get 42 million daily uniques. “I personally have one or two memberships,” Antoon says jovially, “and I still go to the tubes. I get my appetizer on the tubes, my main course on one of the sites.”

This line of reasoning makes sense to Farrell Timlake, who uploads sponsored clips to PornHub and credits the brand exposure with a 50 percent increase in “organic” traffic—the desirable, high-converting surfers who start by typing a paysite’s name into a Google search box—and a 100 percent increase in video submittals to Homegrown. “One thing is for sure,” he says. “ ‘Free porn’ has not killed the industry. It has killed those unwilling to realize that it was just as easy to jerk off for free to the TGP-MGP stuff.”


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