Posted on 01 April 2012.
When Fahim Saleh bought the domain name “prankdial.com,” he fit the demographic one might expect: a high school boy in a small town, an occasional prankster and an Internet geek.
The site ran a simple prank call service. Users entered a message, and the computer would call a number of their choice before reading it in a slow, robotic voice. Saleh put the site up, used it a few times, and then pretty much forgot about it while he was at college.
That is, until someone copied it. When the nearly identical site “prankdialer.com” launched, it inspired Saleh to revive the dinky high school prank site he built on a whim in high school. By that point a serial Internet entrepreneur, he reinvented PrankDial, turning it into a profitable business.
Since its revival, PrankDial’s iPhone app has been downloaded 500,000 times, and its Android app (before it was taken down at Android’s request) was downloaded 4 million times. The site has been behind nearly 100 million prank calls to date.
Saleh — now 25 — has used the prank site’s revenue to found new businesses, relating to everything from Facebook cover photos to iPhone games for kids.
“We’re probably the number-one prank anything on the web,” he says. “If you search ‘prank’ or ‘prank calls,’ you get PrankDial or one of our properties.”
Here’s how the high school gag site grew up.
PrankDial isn’t the only URL that Saleh purchased in high school. Launching websites was something of a habit — and a profitable one.
The first site he sold, a resource for instant messenger icons called AIMDude.com, went for $1,200 on eBay. As he built more sites, he and his business partner (who he met on AIM) outsourced the actual programming involved to agencies abroad.
“We were basically sitting at home in bedrooms, talking to people three times our age, and they have no idea they’re talking to a teenager on the other side,” says Saleh. “We’re in our pajamas, writing up specs and telling them how we want the design changed.”
By the time he was 20, the pair had founded a conglomerate of websites called WizTeen, which allowed users to customize their avatars on services such as MySpace, MSN Messenger and AIM (remember them?). At the company’s peak, Saleh says the sites were pulling in $30,000 to $60,000 every month from Google Ads.
In 2007, a reporter from the Poughkeepsie Journal wrote an article about WizTeen, in which she interviewed its 20-year-old co-founder. She asked him where he saw himself in five years.
“I see myself behind one project that I’m very passionate about, funded by venture capitalists, in California, working full time in an office with like-minded people, working on a project that we’re all passionate about,” Saleh told her. “Everything I’m doing now is leading up to that.”
Five years later, Saleh is in New York, leading a team of 10 who work on PrankDial, as well as a handful of other services under the umbrella company Tapfury. He says he hasn’t sought venture capital because the site has been profitable.
WizTeen fizzled while Saleh was in college as services like AIM made their way out. Seeing imitator Prankdialer.com launch (he eventually bought the site) was what turned his attention to his own prank site, which at that point was getting 300 or 400 unique visitors per day.
It needed a makeover. Sending robot messages over the phone wasn’t as funny as it was in high school, and Saleh replaced the robot with pre-recorded character messages. The recordings pause periodically to give the illusion of a conversation. You can send your friend the voice of an indignant pregnant woman who is pretty sure her baby is his. Or a desperate man who needs bail money. Or a threat from Batman.
“At first, it was just me,” says Saleh. “Basically I just got my really terrible microphone and started blurting out things.”
Now, the site hires voice talent to record the calls. PrankDial charges users who make more than three calls a day, but the service free up until that point. About 2 million people visit the site each month.
Saleh swears his users aren’t just high school boys.
“They don’t have that much discretionary income to spend on prank calling,” he reasons. “I think it’s about having a laugh with friends.”
At the end of the day, PrankDial sells prank calls — which, while not without their merits, are unlikely to change the world.
“I really think if you market something properly, it can be anything on the Internet nowadays,” says Saleh. “It’s hard to believe this makes money, but if you’re the largest prank call website in the world, that generates revenue.”
Just as he funded his college education by customizing AIM icons, he’s funding new business ventures through prank calls. Though Tapfury runs a handful of businesses, PrankDial — which requires very little maintenance — accounts for about 80% of revenue.
Saleh is still searching for that one project he told the Poughkeepsie Journal at age 20 — something to be passionate about. “I really want to work on one project that has an influence on people’s lives,” he tells me, echoing the response he gave that reporter five years ago.
Sure, most people fund such ideas through venture capital or loans. But prank calls seem as good a method as any.
Image courtesy of iStockphoto, IGphotography
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