In the modern world of the adult Internet, nothing is easy. A vast assortment of porn sites fill every corner of the Web, many of them nothing more than a few pages of recycled content thrown up behind a billing screen. Every night, a hundred more seem to crop up like mushrooms in a damp lawn. Just trying to get your site - even if it's well-designed and updated - noticed in this sea of virtual T&A can be enough to drive a hardworking Webmaster to the ends of frustration.
Add to that the problems of protecting your original content, producing and acquiring more, maintaining records, keeping track of affiliates, nursing aging hardware and hoping that your Web host is till in business next month, and it's enough to cause night sweats. Making matters worse is the increasing trend of negotiating these hurdles only to find more problems actually collecting your money.
John Lombardi, owner and CEO of PSW Billing, Inc. doesn't think it should be that way. The 49-year-old Lombardi, who describes himself as "a nice Italian boy from the East coast," has been running adult Websites since before there even was such a thing. More than a decade of serving up porn via the Net makes him a genuine adult online pioneer.
"We had The Misfits, which was a BBS back in the late 80s," explains Lombardi. "So we go back to very old TelNet days. We set up chats and sent pictures back and forth as binaries, the old fashioned way."
Around 1994, as the World Wide Web began to take shape on the Internet and the TelNet communities slowly fell by the wayside, Lombardi began eyeing the greater potential of what was then a "new" marketplace. Like most Net old-timers who started out in the dark pre-history of the mid 90s, Lombardi's first Websites were all free. But as public interest in the Net grew, he realized there was a better way.
"We said let's start charging people, let's close the door and see what we can do," says Lombardi. "Way back then we actually used to TelNet the orders in. It was ludicrous. We actually had a girl who, that was all she did was type in orders and TelNet them to the bank."
The inherent flaws in this system soon led Lombardi to search for a more direct billing solution. "I hired some programmers and we designed our own billing software," he says. "My friends in the adult industry asked why I didn't make it available to the general public, but that was something I hadn't wanted to do. [Processing] is such a small margin, it's all numbers... but eventually I ended up putting nearly a quarter of a million dollars into this software and hardware."
Today, Lombardi is confident that the investment was worth it. He feels that PSW can lay claim to a number of things that make it different from the other billing companies.
"For one thing, our software is much more interactive than our other competition," he explains. "We watched [our competitors] and decided to do something fresh that was adult friendly, specifically for the adult Webmaster, because there didn't seem to be anything like that."
Lombardi also says that PSW was the first company to pay weekly, a policy which has now been adopted by several other billing companies.
"I knew all the adult Webmasters, and I knew what people didn't want," Lombardi chides. "Our biggest difference is honesty. If you have a problem, tell somebody. Don't lie to them. 'Why didn't I get paid this week?' 'Because you didn't make enough.' You know, it depends on your reserve and your chargeback rate and so forth."
It was also important to Lombardi that PSW not grow too fast. "I wanted to stress-test everything," he says. "I wanted to be sure we could handle whatever load came in. We own our building so we aren't going anywhere. We have a tremendous system back-up... we actually have the system backed up in different states. Basically we did overkill on everything. Now that we're comfortable, we've really started going after clients, and it's working."
Lombardi is very comfortable with PSW's slow-but-steady growth, and feels that the customers have been very happy.
"What we found was a lot of people put us up as secondary billing to the so-called big boys," he explains. "And then they would make us primary. They say it's partly that our conversion rate is better, but also that our customer service is much better from a technical standpoint."
That customer service even includes custom-tailored graphics for clients' checkout pages or order forms so that customers don't think they're leaving your site, which can be a very important asset, psychologically.
"Another thing I never did to people," says Lombardi proudly, "was charge them bullshit set-up fees. We're all here to make money, but I'm not going to gouge you $1,200 for a know-nothing setup. I also resent companies holding your database hostage. If you want to leave me, I consider that database your property. It's yours to take with you. I've heard horror stories about other companies."
Lombardi also says that PSW, which does international billing as well, has had no problem with foreign chargebacks. He says this is due to PSW's hardline policy on misleading billing pratices. "A guy wants to cancel, let him cancel. I'll drop people in a heartbeat if I catch the tricks with the redirects, or some guy signs up for a $4.95 membership and gets an e-mail from an autoresponder thanking him for his $34.95 membership to some other site... or these bogus front doors claiming black on white or young girls or whatever, and then inside it's just another site with [standard leased] content. That's chargeback city."
As for the recent announcements by MasterCard that sent shockwaves through the adult online community, Lombardi's position is simple. "They're not going to do it," he says flatly. "It's too much gravy for them to turn down. And they can't say no more recurring, because what does AOL do? What does EarthLink do? And they can't specifically target adult, or they're going to get their ass sued."
As a final note, Lombardi explains that he thinks the recent reappearance of free porn that has caused so much consternation on the chat boards is a good thing. "I went though it with the BBS. It's a shakeout, and you have to have that every few years.
"The people who want to work, who want to create and provide unique content, who want to run a good site that gets updated and caters to its customers, they'll survive. The crap won't. And I think that's good."