The Web Kid Anand Lal Shimpi is a typical high schooler--except for his megahot computer-review site.
(FORTUNE Small Business) – The dreadful, shameful fact of the matter is that Anand Lal Shimpi, a 17-year-old senior at Raleigh's Enloe High School, has received two B's on his report cards, one in history his junior year and the other in German the year before. These calamities caused birds to fall from trees, the Appalachian Mountains to tremble, and Anand's parents to cast about for reasons. "He doesn't like the memorization," says his father, Dr. Lalchand Shimpi, a college professor of computer science. "It's from 20 minutes of homework," snaps his mother, Razieh, in English, one of her four languages.
The focus of this attention makes no excuse for the interruption of straight A's, but Anand does have a distraction. Every week he spends 60 extracurricular hours writing 10,000-plus words as he runs one of the most absorbing and successful small businesses on the Internet, AnandTech (www.anandtech.com). Devoted to computer hardware reviews, and in particular to the components that make up the guts of a computer, the Website has built on word-of-mouth recommendations to the point that it draws more than a million and a half unique visitors monthly. Most of them--though not all--place their trust in the conclusions of the young man who runs it.
The heart of the project (just as in a computer) is motherboards and microchips, and Anand has a gift for making this complex technology understandable. Armed with data from AnandTech, prospective buyers have what they need to make a decision. If just 1% of AnandTech's monthly visitors were guided to a $300 purchase, that would amount to more than $60 million in yearly sales. No wonder the industry is taking notice of this young man.
The Webmaster is a bespectacled wisp of a youth with a surprising baritone voice, his complexion suggesting his East Indian heritage. He speaks to his schoolmates as well as to assorted adults in a casual, serious way, directly and without pretension. "It's the Internet," he explains. "Without it, no one would have given me the opportunity to start my own publication. It's absurd to think that someone would invest the time and money in a little kid."
But when he started the site in April 1997 at age 15, Anand already had eight years of computer experience under his belt, having sat in on his father's college-level course in programming as a 7-year-old third-grader. "He did the assignments, he participated in class. If he had been enrolled, I would have given him an A," says professor Shimpi.
At 13, Anand started his own business building computers, which he merrily called the Anand Software Co.--a joke you'd have to be 13 to appreciate. A couple of years later, while online, he found GeoCities (since then acquired by Yahoo), a site that invites users to build their own Web pages. "I just thought it would be a fun thing to do. I had an interest in computers and a love for them, and I wanted to tell people about it."
His early experience was less than auspicious. "My first review was horrible. It sounded like I just got a new toy and I didn't know what to say. And I really got trashed for that." Adversity provoked harder work, more writing, and greater detail. Before Anand knew it, he was winning better notices from readers and, to his amazement, being asked for advice on buying decisions. Soon he decided to establish a site in his own space.
Today the site is characterized by an uncluttered look, easy navigation, and straightforward prose. For those who want to investigate the personal side, there are pictures of the author at school, his girlfriend, his lunch group, and his ogre-like computer science teacher. In the systems section you'll find an admirably lucid essay, "How to Build a Computer," part of which echoes the kind of children's stories Anand may have heard not so many years ago on someone's lap: "At the heart of every computer is the CPU, which is placed on the motherboard, which parks the peripherals, which drive the storage devices, which are stored on none other than your computer's case."
Given Anand's persuasive power with a sizable audience, the companies under review describe him in careful terms. "AnandTech is as good as any other Website out there. What's unique is Anand's age," says Chuck Mulloy, spokesman for Intel, one of the two giants (with Microsoft) of the PC industry. "His age was an issue at the start. Not anymore," adds Drew Prairie of American Micro Devices (AMD), Intel's leading competitor in the chip-manufacturing field. "He has extremely good relationships with folks here, not necessarily official channels."
But the Internet, like the world it reflects, is never of one mind. Controversies erupt on various newsgroups, and even on AnandTech's own bulletin board. "Anand has always favored Intel over AMD," writes one disgruntled user. "So his information is substandard at best." Actually, Anand has gone back and forth--"like a tennis match," as he puts it--between AMD and Intel as the companies have introduced their latest chips. At the moment, the choice between the top processors from each is a dead heat in Anand's view. "It's good to see that both companies are pushing the bar of competition higher and higher," he says.
So this unabashed teenager intends to do nothing less than shape the computer industry according to his lights. No one, from beginner to computer sophisticate, could mistake his opinions or his enthusiasm. That is a quality that characterizes all his writing and possibly explains the popularity of the site.
With substantial traffic comes the opportunity to sell advertising space, handled exclusively for AnandTech by Akula Internet Publishing in San Jose. Akula's CEO, Larry Barber, says the gross annual revenues for AnandTech (based solely on income from ads) is "coming up on a million dollars," a level the site will reach "within a year." Of course, it's not all gravy. There are fees to agents, lawyers, and outside contributors. Three heavy-duty servers, the host computers, are priced at $25,000 apiece. And ample bandwidth--which ensures the availability of the site to thousands of simultaneous users--runs as much as $7,000 a month.
Still, if Barber is right, such earning power puts Anand in a rather exclusive club for 17-year-olds. But when an interview with Anand turns to finances, Mrs. Shimpi bursts into the room to call a halt. No matter. The family has moved into a newly developed part of North Carolina's Research Triangle, and Anand is commuting to school in a late-model, electric-blue BMW convertible.
AnandTech is far from alone in the hardware-reviewing business. Competition ranges from other highly personal sites (see the box at left) to major players such as C/NET (www.cnet.com) and ZDNet (www.zdnet.com), which have huge staffs and powerful corporate backing in evaluating computer equipment.
Despite the disparity in size, this David has had some winning moments against the Goliaths. Just a year ago, Anand scooped everyone in reporting on a new processor from AMD, the K6-3, well before its release. AMD officials say they don't know how he got the chip, and Anand sure isn't telling. The incident drew considerable attention to AnandTech, including a sniffy reference in PC Magazine to tests "purported to have been run with a prototype of the K6-3."
"I don't care about being first," says Anand. "The thing I get the most kick out of is taking technical information and weeding out all the crap, all the PR stuff, and taking it down to 'buy this, don't buy that, and here's why.' What I hate is seeing a review online that's not intended to help the end user but rather to please the manufacturer and get more products. A lot of people do it for the free hardware."
Yes, there have been attempts to steer Anand from the straight and narrow. On a recent visit to a Montreal company, he found a welcome package in his hotel room containing a French-English dictionary and a Canadian $50 bill in case he hadn't had "time to go to the bank." What was the result? "My editorial said they showed some cool stuff but I didn't see any purpose to it," he says.
Anand does not believe his integrity is at stake: "If someone pays for my trip, that's fine. They handle all the work. But I will tell the truth as I see it. That is ironclad." Of course, few major publications would risk compromising their journalistic ethics by allowing staffers to accept free trips, but our youthful entrepreneur, like the technology that fascinates him, is a work in progress. Anand, version two or three, may rewrite that policy. "I'm still a teenager," he concedes, "and this is just a hobby I have on the outside."
This particular hobby demands some real sacrifice. Anand admits that he misses regular kid stuff such as playing ball, hanging out, and going to varsity games. But he reserves weekend time for his girlfriend, Amy Wheeless, a fresh-faced junior who recently got her braces off at about the same time his went on.
Come June, Anand will graduate and move on to a new phase of his life. College might be North Carolina State University, a few blocks from home, or someplace as far away as MIT. But AnandTech devotees can rest easy. The founder is going to hire four or five editors to join the half-dozen existing contributors, and the site will continue and perhaps grow. Others may do most of the writing, but Anand plans to stay in charge. "I'll come on every now and then and say, 'Here are my thoughts on the industry.' " It figures. When he is 18, Anand Lal Shimpi will morph into an elder statesman.