Tiny URL developer basking in website's success

  • Article by: TONY GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 8, 2008 - 2:50 PM

The website he created in 2002, TinyURL.com, gets an impressive 1 billion hits a month, but Blaine Web developer Kevin Gilbertson would rather talk about riding his unicycle.

Kevin Gilbertson could easily make $1 million a month. He chooses not to.

That's not to say the 28-year-old Blaine Web developer isn't doing well since his creation, TinyURL.com, took off in 2002. Recently named one of the 50 best websites by Time magazine, TinyURL does a simple task:

It allows you to turn a long, unwieldy Web address into something you can remember. Something, well, tiny.

The site makes URLs tiny at a rate of about 1 billion per month. Which is where the $1 million comes in. Gilbertson could make about that much if he chose to attach a pop-up advertisement on each URL. But he won't, on principle.

"It's kind of, 'Here's a pop-up, look at me,'" Gilbertson said. "That's not what I want to see. It's all about getting the person to the place."

That's about as expansive as the Web tinkerer and entrepreneur gets. He saves most of his words for his other pursuit -- unicycling. Everything about him is somewhat abbreviated: short sentences, few keystrokes, one wheel. But he might not have been the man behind TinyURL if it weren't for the unicycling.

While hosting an online forum for his riding hobby, Gilbertson wanted a way to keep links from wrapping down several lines of text.

He made TinyURL, it spread to other online forums, and, without much fanfare, ended up everywhere and much-imitated. Today it is one of the top 1,000 sites in terms of hits.

"There are other services that have better special features than TinyURL," said Michael Calore, an editor at Wired.com and WebMonkey.com. "But even though those services have special features, TinyURL is still the fan favorite."

Gilbertson's computer tinkering began under the instruction of his father, Bill Gilbertson, a 57-year-old software developer who said Kevin often seemed to crash the home computers. (Kevin blames the old computers.)

While studying mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota, the younger Gilbertson gained notoriety for commuting around campus on his unicycle. At age 22, he also quietly began earning money from TinyURL donations and advertising revenue. After a year and a half, he'd saved enough to buy a home.

"I didn't know there was any money in it," Bill Gilbertson said. "The last semester of college at the U, I kind of hinted that he should stop by the placement office and see what they had on the board. I was kind of frustrated because he didn't seem to be pursuing gainful employment."

Come graduation, Bill asked his son to pay back a car loan of about $3,000.

"Five minutes later, he'd brought me down a check for the whole thing," Bill said.

Now he pitches ideas to his son.

"I've yet to come up with something that he hasn't already considered," Bill said.

Kevin spends as many as 14 hours per day on the computer -- on days he doesn't unicycle. In fact, the entire Gilbertson family can ride. Bill and Kevin ("Gilby" to fellow unicyclists) ride with the Twin Cities Unicycle Club (TCUC) and compete regularly at national and international unicycle contests. They're in Rapid City, S.D., this week as part of the TCUC Show Group, which has won every national club championship since 1995. The family has been to conventions in Switzerland, Germany, China, Japan and Quebec.

"[Kevin] goes around the world and everyone knows his name," said Tim Lee, president of TCUC.

For unicycling, that is, not for his billion-hits-per-month website.

At a recent group practice in Roseville, Gilbertson rode circles, literally, around his fellow riders. Rolling in loops and performing synchronized hops is standard fare for a guy who has unicycled since age 8 and who once rode from Iowa to International Falls, Minn., just for the challenge.

At practice, Gilbertson repeatedly tried a difficult trick in which the unicycle seat is pushed to the ground, out front like a plow, leaving him riding on the wheel alone. For another, his feet leave the pedals to push, scuff and brace against the wheel.

But Gilbertson prefers to ride long-distance and along off-road paths. Wearing pads and a camelback water pack, Gilbertson uses a knobby-wheeled unicycle (one of his six cycles) to ride over logs and handle 3-foot drops.

Natalie Lanzatella, 24, met Gilbertson at a unicycle fitness class at the U. When she went looking for TCUC later, he was off riding in Laos. Upon his return she began riding and the two began dating.

"[TinyURL is] a job that allows him to pay the bills and not run his life," Lanzatella said. "He's one of the most laid-back people I've ever met in my life."

'I've got a few ideas'

But when it comes to new Web businesses, Gilbertson is very tight-lipped. Nobody, not Lanzatella, not his father, knows what's next.

"I would think I could come up with something as good," Gilbertson said, when prodded. "I mean, I've got a few ideas."

The only one he'll mention is the upcoming launch of "TinyURL 2.0." Otherwise, he stays busy performing site maintenance and warding off spammers.

Gilbertson has considered starting a company, but enjoys his job flexibility. Working alone in a Twin Cities suburb with a laptop and 23-inch monitor is more appealing than the pressure of maintaining a spendy Silicon Valley lifestyle, he said.

He dreams about making "Gilby" a household name.

"There are things that can be done through a website that can change the world," he said. "It's definitely possible for one person to do."

Tony Gonzalez • 612-673-7415

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    The Twin Cities Unicycle Club practices almost daily around the metro area. More info at www.tcuc.org.

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