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Published: Sunday, 5/7/2006

Web site attracts global fan base

BY GEORGE J. TANBER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Justin Morton of Adrian has a trivia Web site that he runs from his home. It has attracted 11,000 subscribers from around the world who write the trivia questions. Justin Morton of Adrian has a trivia Web site that he runs from his home. It has attracted 11,000 subscribers from around the world who write the trivia questions.
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ADRIAN - Some people define trivia as useless knowledge.

Justin Morton has a better description: meal ticket.

Mr. Morton operates a Web-based enterprise out of his Adrian home called Sploofus.com. Simply, it's a place for trivia buffs to compete against one another for points and bragging rights. Categories range from The World, Food and Spirits, Technology and Television, to Sports, Science and For Kids Only, to name a few.

According to Mr. Morton, 11,000 people from Maine to Hong Kong to London have signed on as subscribers since Sploofus first went on line in 2004. What makes the enterprise unique is that the subscribers also write the trivia quizzes.

"People are paying to author my content," said the 30-year-old Mr. Morton, flashing a bemused smile at the thought.

Another plus any business owner would cherish is the loyalty demonstrated by Mr. Morton's trivia players.

"When they come to Sploofus, they stick around," he said.

Mr. Morton's meteoric rise in the Web-based computer game business has followed a path similar to other entrepreneurs of his generation, some of whom learned to write computer codes before swinging a baseball bat. At 9, while living in his native Tecumseh, he authored his first computer program, a hobby he still loves.

During his senior year at Tecumseh High School, Mr. Morton had the good fortune of serving as a teacher's aide to Jerry Nelson, a biology teacher. Rather than the traditional duties, Mr. Nelson told Mr. Morton to spend the time in the library and elsewhere.

"He encouraged me to come up with new ideas, and he gave me the freedom to do that," Mr. Morton said. "He taught me to ask questions and be curious. I [developed] a passion for knowledge."

After graduation, Mr. Morton attended Purdue University but dropped out after a year after spending more time in the computer lab than in the classroom.

"I was a total nerd," he said.

About that time, around 1994, the Internet was emerging. Mr. Morton quickly grasped two things: The way people communicated with one another was going to quickly evolve, and the impact of the new technology was going to dramatically change people's lives.

He returned to Tecumseh and wrote mathematics programs, which challenged his intellect but kept his refrigerator bare and barely kept his 1993 Ford Ranger in the driveway. But he was carefree and single.

"So I had the freedom to do what I was passionate about," he said.

He married in 1998 and soon after had the sort of brainstorm Mr. Nelson would have admired.

"What if your alarm clock not only woke you up in the morning but had the weather, your e-mails, your stock reports, your horoscope, and other useful information?" he thought one day. Thus was born the Logiclock.

Next thing the 22-year-old Mr. Morton knew, he was pitching the idea to a group of venture capitalists in Austin, Texas. He realized he had a good idea when Disney bought a Logiclock prototype for its house of the future at the Epcot Center in Florida.

"That was the most wonderful thing," he said.

But after spending three years seeking the $13 million to $15 million required to launch production, Mr. Morton lost interest.

"The product was too early," he said. "[Also], I'm a software guy, and I was building a clock.

The birth of his son, Justin, Jr., triggered, for the first time in his life, a need to make money. So Mr. Morton sold cars and waited on tables. Then one morning in 2003 he remembered what Mr. Nelson, who died in 1996, had told him about seeking knowledge. And he thought about how the Internet brought people together. Suddenly, the idea for a trivia Web site emerged.

"[After all], trivia is the pursuit of knowledge," he said, "and everyone is passionate about something. I'm offering them a forum in which they can share their knowledge and do that in a way that is very entertaining. That is the key."

The name Sploofus came from a computer-generated spoof he pulled on a group of his sixth-grade classmates. The game has evolved in its two years. Basic subscriptions remain free, but gold and platinum subscribers pay fees for more services. About 60 percent of Mr. Morton's revenue comes from advertisers.

Mr. Morton has no paid employees. But a group of volunteer editors, who live all over the world, edit and verify the quizzes written by subscribers and write the popular Trivia Question of the Day that awaits each subscriber in his or her personal e-mail account each morning. The editors, former subscribers recruited by Mr. Morton, are passionate about their involvement.

"I was thrilled to be a part of the editorial staff," Tracy Potts said. "Sploofus players come from every walk of life, from all over the globe. The common bond is the penchant for storing bits of random knowledge in our brain. The competition is friendly and fun."

Added another editor, Beth Dudek: "I get to hang out, as it were, with a great bunch of intelligent people almost every day doing something I love. How cool is that?"

Ms. Dudek added: "Justin's idea is a great one. By creating a place where others could share what they know, the site has really grown and taken off. The members are the backbone of the site. They contribute more than the editors or Justin."

Mr. Morton will pay his editors and offer prizes to Sploofus members when he turns a profit - something he envisions happening soon. Meanwhile, he's still driving the '93 Ford. And, unlike some other Internet entrepreneurs, he won't sell Sploofus. "Not even for $10 million. What would I do?" he said.

Contact George J. Tanber at: gtanber@theblade.com or 734-241-3610.



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