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Marshall Brain ’83 Illustration
Brain’s talent for explaining a wide range of topics in clear, easy-to-read-and-digest prose has earned him praise from the media and a thriving business amid the burst of the Internet bubble.
With about 3 million unique visitors each month, the Web site is the backbone of the company, which was founded two years ago. Brain says investors were drawn to the site because it initially attracted 100,000 visitors a month with zero dollars spent on advertising. In contrast, Brain says, there were online companies—now defunct—that “burned through $100 million in advertising just to get the same traffic as HowStuffWorks.”

Brain’s talent for explaining a wide range of topics in clear, easy-to-read-and-digest prose has earned him praise from the media and a thriving business amid the burst of the Internet bubble. Forbes cited HowStuffWorks as “a great reference tool for parents and inquisitive children,” while CNN warns “Pack a lunch, you’ll be at this site for hours.” The site features an online store, Gadget of the Day, Question of the Day, Survey of the Day, and HowStuffWorks Express for kids. The site’s advertisers also are banking on its addictive nature—a process explained in the article “How Web Advertising Works.”

Brain says HowStuffWorks started out “as a total hobby, a Saturday morning kind of thing,” four years ago at his home in Zebulon, N.C. At the time he was teaching and writing books on software topics for Interface Technologies, a software development and training company he founded with a friend. Brain created a page on his personal Web site where he would post his articles on topics targeted toward teenagers. His first entry was “How Car Engines Work.”

“I would sit down and think about what I’m curious about” and what interested him as a teenager, says Brain, who also describes his teenage self as a “geek.” Brain quickly found kindred spirits intrigued by the same topics, and the site grew by word of mouth —and the click of the mouse—from just two visitors a day to 3 million a month today, ranking it among the top 400 U.S. sites on the Web. Six months after posting his first article, the site had enough traffic to warrant its own domain, and www.howstuffworks.com was born.

Attention from the cyber and media worlds followed. “The first mention was on Netscape Netcenter ‘site of the day,’ and then it appeared on Yahoo!, USA Today, and other places,” says Brain, who is still mystified by all the acclaim his site has garnered. A breakthrough, he says, was winning the Cool Site of the Day’s annual “Cool Site of the Year Award” for 1998. “At the time it was the biggest award on the Web, and winning it got my attention.

“I’m a guy working at my kitchen table, on weekends, by myself, and there were 60 sites nominated with millions of dollars and staffs of 100. That told me there was something here that might be developed.”

Brain realized he had tapped into a large market of Internet users: the chronically curious. “If you’re a curious person, you look at this site and you love it,” he says.

With a full-time staff of 20 writers, editors, and artists at HowStuffWorks Inc., the Web site is updated daily with feature articles often on topics related to current events. When the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk sank in August 2000, the site posted an article on how subs work within 24 hours. Following Sept. 11, visitors to the site have expressed a lot of interest in information about military hardware, terrorism, and why the World Trade Center towers collapsed, so articles on those topics were produced. More than 6,000 e-mail requests a month from users and discussions on the site’s forums also generate topics for articles.
 

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2002
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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