Does the name Danni mean anything to you? Not really? What about Danni Ashe? Only a few of you? Okay, how about Danni's Hard Drive? Yeow, there go some hands in the air! Okay, you can put them down now.
I said, you can put them down now.
See, this is so typical of porn fans. You're too... exuberant! That's why there was a bloody three-hour wait to get into the adult exhibition at CES, because you're fuckin' out of control! Coincidentally (not), Danni Ashe was at CES both January 7 and 8, signing autographs for her own fearless phalanx of fans, the ones who not only know her name but will eagerly travel thousands of miles to see her. They don't care that she's never been in a hardcore flick. They know that the lady is a Bona Fide Star, thanks in part to the Internet, but due mostly to an entrepreneurial intensity that Bill Gates might envy.
If Internet years are like dog years, Danni's Hard Drive (www.dannisharddrive.com) has been around for thirty-five of them. But even at five human years, it long ago set the standard for softcore personal adult Web sites. It navigates like a Lamborghini and is stacked like a House of Pancakes. There are more beautiful women gracing its "pages" than most other sites combined, and they're not just beautiful. They have, by and large, extraordinarily impressive bosoms. Some are large, some are not. Some are natural, some are not. But all are riveting. This, after all, is the home of "The Boob Bowl" and "The Associated Breast," to name but two of the many mammilary features that grace this eye-popping site.
One wonders what could have possessed a woman to become so singularly focused. "I have very large breasts and was sort of pigeonholed into the 'big breast' thing," explained Ashe during a late January interview at her gorgeous new (though not quite finished) office and studio complex - located nowhere near the San Fernando Valley. If that out-of-context sentence makes it sound as though Ashe begrudgingly accepts her "cruel fate" of endowment, not so. Danni Ashe loves what she does. It's apparent when you speak with her, and it's even more apparent from the site itself, which exudes a felicity not often associated with sex.
In fact, what Ashe has succeeded in doing is truly impressive: She's created a very popular and lucrative business while remaining true not only to her original vision, but to an ethical way of conducting business that is almost unheard of in the unregulated laissez faire battleground that is the adult Internet. For one thing, she sells neither advertising nor traffic. That alone sets her apart from the pack. "I made a decision a long time ago," she says. "I sold a banner ad to Cybererotica, and they paid me what felt like a lot of money at the time, and it was a very good deal for me, but what I found out was that I actually sent more business away than I got. It drew so much business away that I actually lost money in the end. So I decided to never sell advertising again."
That is not conventional wisdom and it certainly isn't something the big boys who run the partnerships programs want to hear. It sure isn't what you hear preached at the seminars. In fact, it sounds downright Communistic. Well, maybe not, but it is different and hardcore in its own right.
The non-virtual Ashe is lovely in person; self-assured, soft-spoken and endearingly feminine, even though when we met she was dressed to kill in a beautifully tailored dark gray business suit that cast her deceptively in the role of corporate heavy. But as nice as she is, and one is hard-pressed to find anyone with anything bad to say about her, she is uncompromisingly protective when it comes to both her members and her models. "I have a passion and a vision for how I want the models to be perceived and how I want to entertain the fans," she says. "Selling off their personal information and selling off exit traffic is not a part of that vision. A lot of these guys are like, 'Well, you have the E-mail addresses to a quarter of a million people, you should be selling it. You could make money.' But no, that's not the point. I've cultivated a loyal following of people who trust me, and that's not a part of how it's going to work. I'm not going to sell them away. I'm not going to send them into an endless loop of opening windows when they try to leave my site just because I'm trying to make an extra fifty grand on exit traffic."
But she's just getting warmed up. "When you have people who invest more in their banner programs than they do in their content, in building a vision and a brand for their company, I think you've found people who will push the limits of what's acceptable. It's happening with the free trials, with making it hard for members to cancel, tricking them into subscribing, selling them off once they get to the site. The next thing you know, the FTC is getting involved, and VISA and MasterCard are upset, closing down merchant accounts. It's all because the business is more about greed than it is about passion and vision. I mean, all businesses are businesses, and you're trying to make money, but it has to be a good balance." Strange as it may seem, those are almost fighting words in the world of Adult Internet, and she knows it. "I find myself being really unpopular. I have friendly relationships with everyone in the business, but inevitably they'll come to me and they'll want to make some traffic exchange deal or something and that's not what I'm about."
Another value that sets Ashe apart is her refusal to allow any hardcore material on her site. Forget about penetration - just finding a penis is like looking for a, well... a needle in a haystack. This is totally a Girls Night Out. If it weren't for the full nudity and the cuddly girl/girl action, it's practically PG. Considering her sales would easily double or treble from their projected seven million for the year 2000, one would assume that excluding hardcore must have been a particularly difficult decision to make. Wrong again. "It's not that I don't want to attract those [hardcore] people. It's just that I feel that for this business to be successful it has to come from my heart and it has to be really fun for me. And that just happens to be my own line. I've never felt comfortable crossing over into hardcore. I can have a really good time and be an exhibitionist when it's about nudity and light girl/girl playful stuff. But when it crosses the line into hardcore it gets uncomfortable for me and that's just a personal thing. So I feel my Web site has to convey my personality."
But what about working with hardcore actresses? "We have models on site who range everywhere from B-movie actresses who will only pose topless to extreme hardcore actresses. I feel my site is really all about the women, and there's a huge range in this industry. Everyone has different boundaries and approaches the industry in different ways." The same diversity holds with respect to the famous (or infamous) and the obscure. "We have a bond with women ranging all the way from very famous personalities like Jenna Jameson and Nina Hartley down to Net amateurs. Some of the most popular amateurs are Net amateurs, so I think what's interesting about Danni's Hard Drive is that when you log on you can explore all the different areas of the industry and all the different personalities of women who are attracted to the industry."
It almost sounds as if Danni's Hard Drive is a very large niche site. "I think our niche is that we are personality driven," she says. "My personality overwhelmingly but also the personality of the girls. It's a personality-driven, fun, friendly environment, different from what people traditionally except from a porn site."
Does the fact that it's softcore account for the mainstream attention in publications like The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Industry Standard? "Well, Vivid and Wicked attract a lot of mainstream attention too. With publicity, I think it's more about that it's an interesting story, a female publisher, an Internet story and a success story. Where I know it [being softcore] makes a difference is with banking relationships, business relationships, forging relationships with other big mainstream companies."
Danni's Hard Drive employs about 35 people full-time, including business affairs people, an in-house counsel, writers, editors, make-up and costume people, a talent coordinator, customer service reps and a CEO who also happens to be Danni Ashe's husband, Bert.
They are spread out comfortably over 16,500 square feet that include over 5,000 square feet of studio space. They own their own servers and are in the process of becoming a completely independent production facility. It seems, in fact, that Ashe, an admitted control freak, doesn't want to be dependent on anybody but herself and her team. It's an evolutionary process that bodes well for the convergent near future. "I'm focused on building a name brand, on building identifiable content that speaks to people on some level, that they know what we're about and what to expect from us. While I think our vision is different from the Playboy vision, I have modeled my company after them because they are an incredible brand."
Not a bad model for the mini-mogul who started stripping when she was 17 years old, worked her way up to feature dancer and then quit after some bad experiences on the road. And not a bad upward trajectory from the days when she "literally did everything, all the Web design, all the graphics, all the image prep, the accounting system, the database. I did everything."
One wonders what in life could prepare someone for such success from such humble beginnings. "Well, I know what's gotten me through it: the fact that I'm very monomaniacal and focused when I want something. I read somewhere that the definition of intelligence is the ability to get unstuck when you are stuck. Your life is a series of getting stuck and unstuck. When I'm stuck, I dig in. There were so many times along the way, building the Web site, when I'd get really stuck, starting with downloading and decoding the photographs to getting the server to stay up night after night."
Is that single-minded ability to focus her strength in life? "Yes, my ability to focus. To the point of driving everyone around me completely insane."
So would she say that perhaps she is slightly... obsessive? There is a slight hesitation, and then a smile that comes easily and brightens the room. "Maybe a little."