He looks like an average college student: shoulder-length brown hair, glasses, easy smile. Maybe a little taller than most, somewhere between 6-foot-3 and 6-foot-4.
But many students in his position, sitting just three weeks and one semester away from graduation, would be starting to worry about their job prospects right about now. Not Todd Sullivan. He took care of that problem as a freshman.
Sullivan is the founder and operator of YabbleBabble.com, a Web site that allows artisans to sell the products they make, sort of an Amazon.com for clay figurines, bead necklaces and quilts.
The dot-com started slowly in November 2004, receiving 40 to 50 hits in its first month, but it has grown steadily, to the point that it now receives hundreds of thousands of visits per month, Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s brainchild sprang from one too many sessions making clay figurines of animals, a hobby he and a couple of friends developed as freshmen.
“It got to the point where we’d made a lot of them, and Todd had the idea to sell them at a profit,” said Christina Helton, a fellow figurine maker. “I figured it was a silly idea. They looked like something a 12-year-old would make, but Todd decided to create the Web site.”
Sullivan began working on the Web site, and although it took a few months to get the site up and running, he didn’t face the costs a conventional entrepreneur would in starting a business. There was no building to be leased, just $13 a month to connect to a server. No loan was necessary, just six bucks per year to secure the Web site’s domain name.
Sullivan’s natural proclivity for computers meant YabbleBabble didn’t have to shell out thousands of dollars for tech assistance to set up the Web site. His mother worked as a computer programmer in the ’70s and ’80s, so computers were always around the house. Still, Sullivan credits his talent for technology to an illness that many would call a setback.
In high school Sullivan was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a physical disorder that enhances pain and fatigue in the body’s soft tissue. A full night of sleep leaves Sullivan feeling as if he’s spent two hours in the gym. The condition forced him to quit one of his favorite activities, soccer, because of the pain it caused.
Muscles that most people never feel are acutely felt by Sullivan. Sitting through classes is tough, he said, but he has “a beast of a computer chair” that can be adjusted in just about any way to help relieve the pain.
Sullivan has learned to see the good in his condition.
“It’s one of those things, it sucks,” he said. “But I don’t think I’d be doing all the good things I’m doing right now if I didn’t have it.”
Sullivan used the time he couldn’t spend playing soccer to polish his resume, working on Web sites for local businesses and his high school, Park Hill. The experience helped him to set up YabbleBabble; it gave him the knowledge and patience to make it a success.
While Internet companies don’t have to deal with the costs a conventional business has, they often face a bigger challenge in making themselves known. Consumers need to know about the Web site for it to make money, and Sullivan used search-engine optimization to bring them in.
The best way to generate interest in a site, Sullivan said, is to get its name to pop up in as many Google or Yahoo or Ask.com searches as possible. Sullivan worked hard to get YabbleBabble’s name on the front page of crafts-related searches, connecting his site to thousands of specific searches such as “green-blue summer scarf” by linking his Web site to other popular destinations and registering his site with search-engine directories.
As more people clicked on the site, Sullivan’s profits rose. YabbleBabble receives 9 percent of each sale, and with low operating costs, almost all of that 9 percent is profit. The site hasn’t finished growing, either. Sullivan said the number of hits is still rising steadily, and crafters who peddle their wares on YabbleBabble think it could keep growing steadily.
“Yabble Babble is a young site, and it’s just a matter of getting the name out there,” said Jean Murdoch, owner of By Hand By Jean crafts. “Once it’s been around a little longer, it will gain an even bigger following.”
Sullivan isn’t worried about finding work after he graduates in May with a double major in math and computer science. He declined to reveal his profits, saying only that YabbleBabble income would be enough to sustain him as he attends graduate school to study artificial intelligence.
Helton, who recalled when Sullivan developed the idea, said she was surprised that something with such an innocent beginning has grown so big. She credited Sullivan’s tenacity for making YabbleBabble a success.
“A lot of college students would give up if something isn’t successful right away,” Helton said. “Todd is a very self-motivated person, and that’s why his resumé is two pages long.”