A bitter Canadian winter, a hack of Paris Hilton's cell phone, and a little luck make Digg.com a hit

Company launched in 2004 with $2,000 now has 1 million users

SAN FRANCISCO -- Digg.com,  a site that allows users to submit and rank news content on a variety of topics, is celebrating the arrival of its 1 millionth registered user this week.

The site now serves up some 10 million pages per day, a number that is growing by 10% each month. But the company, which can take down an external site with traffic generated by a "Dugg" story, started more humbly less than three years ago with two people, $2,000 and a $99 a month Web hosting account, said Owen Byrne, a Digg Inc. co-founder and senior software engineer at the company.

Kevin Rose, a fellow co-founder, came up with the idea for Digg.com in October 2004 as a "Slashdot killer." He envisioned a social network built around a specific function: democratizing the media by allowing anyone to contribute to what they deemed to be news, Byrne said yesterday at the O'Reilly Web 2.0 Summit here.

Byrne said that he and Rose set about writing the code from scratch and building the site with the LAMP stack of open-source software that is made up of Linux, Apache, MySQL and the PHP scripting language.

"We didn't have a big infrastructure," he said. "In general, we didn't need a whole operations infrastructure. It was just us."

In addition, the two used Asynchronous JavaScript and XML to help eliminate redundant page refreshes and help ease the load on the server. They focused on linking to other sites and providing bloggers and other sites a widget that lets users "Digg" a story.

The company posted only a single advertisement on the collaborative blog BoingBoing following its launch, but found itself growing 20% a month by early 2005.

That steady growth became an explosion starting one morning in February 2005. "I woke up and went to log in …it took me five minute to get a user prompt," Byrne said. "Apparently, a few days earlier Paris Hilton's cell phone had been hacked. Somebody put a link on Digg."

The site that day topped Yahoo's search results as traffic doubled, Byrne said. Traffic on the site doubled again over the course of the next week, he added. While the founders had worked hard to make the site search-engine-friendly, Byrne acknowledged that "it might not have happened," without the Hilton melee.

"In some ways, I was kind of amazed by the whole thing," he said  "I really didn't think it would take off the way it did."

Until August 2005, Rose and Byrne had never met face to face. At that time, they met in Toronto to formulate plans for a more formal IT operations department by adding a DBA and operations manager. The company now employs seven people and is close to profitability, Byrne noted.

Since its founding, Digg has raised more than $10 million in venture capital funding and has expanded to include popular video and podcasting sections on its site.

As for fledgling start-ups now trying to make a dent in the Web 2.0 world, Byrne advised them to constantly engage with users. He noted that in Digg.com's early days, he often become discouraged and lonely while coding in his home along the East Coast of Canada.

But at the end of each day, he would put on his customer service hat, respond to bug reports and find other ways to chat with users. "Users are great to energize you," he said. "They can give you that inspiration to go on when things seem kind of not good."

He also attributes Digg.com's -- and his --  staying power to a particularly bad winter in 2004 and 2005 that prompted him to not want to venture out from his home. "It was quite easy to sit in front of a computer and code," Byrne said.

Early on, Digg focused on getting advertisers on board rather than worrying about building an audience and then monetizing the project, he noted. "We learned about economizing and keeping up with demand rather than anticipating a demand that might not materialize," Byrne said.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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