In 2002, achieved an amazing milestone -- more than three million people came to visit in a single month, and we moved into the top echelon of Web sites in the United States. We received awards from Time Magazine (50 Best Web Sites), PC Magazine (Top 100 Classic Web Sites) and Yahoo Internet Life Magazine (Best Science and Technology Resource). It shows that there are lots and lots of people who, like you and me, are curious and interested in finding out how stuff works!

As the site has grown in popularity, I have been asked to do a number of interviews with every media you can imagine -- newspapers, magazines, radio, TV and the Web. People are curious about Web sites in general, and they also are curious about the " story". How did the company get started? How many employees does the company have? How does the company make money? Where is the company headed in the future? And the most common question of all, "Is Marshall Brain your real name???" I don't know why that question is so common, but it is almost always the number 1 or number 2 question in any interview that I do!

In this edition of, I would like to take you behind the scenes at and show you how it all works. I would like for you to understand "How Works" in the same way that you understand "How Toasters Work" or "How Rocket Engines Work." As I am finishing this, today is April 8, 2002 -- this article will be a snapshot of the company as of today. I'll talk about the history of the site, how the site became a business, how we got start-up capital from venture capitalists, how we make money, the technology we use to support the site, the people who work with me to bring you all this great material, and where the site is going in the future. If you have ever wondered how works, or how companies in general work, you will love this article! Let's get started...

Is Marshall Brain Your Real Name?
The most common question that folks who work at get asked is, "Is Marshall Brain a real person?" And when people meet me, one of the first questions they ask is, "Is Marshall Brain your real name?" Since that question gets asked so often, let's start with it.

I am a real person. And yes, Marshall Brain really is my name. I can tell you I paid dearly for that name in high school -- wow, was it a bad name to have as a teenager! But now it is a name that works very well for the founder of I am the son of David and Sandy Brain, and I was born in Santa Monica, Calif., on May 17, 1961. My parents were both born and raised in Springfield, Ohio, and if you ever go to Springfield you will find the Brain Lumber Co. there. It was started by my great-grandfather, Willard Brain.

I lived a pretty normal American childhood in Southern California. For example, I got a tricycle for my second birthday:

Me and my tricycle at my second birthday party

I sat around in Tide detergent boxes watching television:

And my family would go on lots of camping trips:

My mother, father, sister Shari and I on a camping trip,
sitting on the tailgate of the station wagon circa 1968.

We had a huge green Sebring Satellite station wagon, complete with roof rack and the imitation wood paneling along the sides. We would pack a giant canvas four-man tent, our sleeping bags, our aluminum dish set, our lantern, our Coleman ice box, our German shepherd named Dusk, tons of food and all of the other comforts of home into the car and travel around to national parks all over the Southwest. Many of my very favorite childhood memories are those camping trips.

Me with my son David and Frosty after the "big snow of 2000" in Raleigh, NC. In January of 2000, Raleigh got 20 inches (50 cm) of snow -- something totally unheard of in the southeastern United States!

So, yes, I am as real as people get. And, yes, my name really is Marshall Brain. And, yes, it is an amazing coincidence that someone who happened to have the last name "Brain" founded Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction!

Today I live in Raleigh, N.C., with my wife, Leigh, my sons, David, John and Ian, and my daughter, Irena. I have lived in Raleigh for 15 years, and Leigh is a Raleigh native.

Where did come from? started at my kitchen table sometime in January 1998. I had written a
book for teenagers, and with that done I was looking for something else that I could do for teenagers. I thought back to when I was 16, and I realized that one thing that really appealed to me was learning how things worked. I was the kind of kid who would sit in the library reading "Popular Science" magazine, who would take things apart to see what's inside, and so on. There was one big problem -- most of the stuff I would read at age 16 was either: A) intended for children and therefore unsatisfying, or B) intended for adults and professionals and therefore way over my head. Since my father had died just before my 15th birthday and my mother was not very knowledgeable about technology, it was frustrating.

So the birth of is me sitting down at the kitchen table thinking about things that interest me, and explaining them in language that is understandable and satisfying. Then I would attach links to the article so that, if the reader wanted to learn more, there was an easy way to find additional material. I would create simple drawings and animations to help illustrate the ideas, and I would take digital photographs whenever I could because they really add a lot to the explanation in many articles.

The first article I wrote was on car engines. Some of the other very early articles were on things like pendulum clocks, batteries, electric motors, etc. I wrote these articles on weekends or in the evening when I got home from work, and I really enjoyed doing it. It truly was a labor of love -- I put the articles I wrote onto the Web for free, and there was no advertising on the articles or any other source of revenue. I did it for the fun of it.

Many people find this hard to believe. Up to the point where the site had 100 articles or so, I had done absolutely everything to create the site -- the writing, art, photos, Web design, HTML and even the logo were all the product of a single person working part time. One thing that made it easier for me is the fact that I love to write. I have written 10 books, and like many other authors I have to write every day. I feel physically uncomfortable if I do not write something every day. I love technology -- I have a degree in electrical engineering and a masters degree in computer science, so I feel comfortable with technology and science. I also love to teach. I taught for six years in the computer science department at N.C. State University. And I truly love working on articles for articles are some of the most fascinating articles I have ever written. When you put those things together, the site was able to grow very quickly.

One thing that I really enjoy about writing articles is making things clear and understandable. Most of the technology that surrounds us today is surprisingly simple at the core, and that makes it interesting! Another enjoyable part is the research. There are lots of things that we all see and use every day that we know little or nothing about. Like the power lines running into our homes. And the telephone system. And chocolate. This stuff is fascinating! But you have to wade through a lot of chaff to find the fascinating stuff, and it is hard to find what you are looking for on the Web sometimes. That's another reason why I put links in my articles -- to help you find the good stuff easily.

By June 1998 I had created about 50 articles. In 90 percent of these articles, the motivation was, "I have always wanted to know how that works!" Things like water towers, helium balloons, refrigerators, nuclear power... and even something like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer -- where in the world did he come from? I just found this stuff fascinating, so I would write about it. Some of the article topics (like digital electronics and digital clock) came straight from my training in electrical engineering and the fact that I built digital clocks as a teenager, but most were driven by curiosity.

Early on I had a little newsletter that I sent out. By June 1998, 700 people had signed up for it. I also had a place like a guest book where you could submit questions and comments. This had all been in a directory on a Web site my wife and I had. At that point I registered and made it its own entity.

Becoming, Inc.
At this point a funny and amazing thing happened. The site started to get some media attention, it won some awards, people really liked it so they would tell their friends about it, and the traffic really started to grow. In December 1998,
Hitbox (a free web statistics tool) records that the site had 94,000 visitors in a month and they read the home page 171,000 times (it wasn't until August 1999 that Hitbox could record hits across an entire site, so these numbers are lower than they should be. But they give you an idea of the traffic).

In January 1999, when won the "Coolest Site on the Internet" award from, I started to get the impression that I might be onto something a little bigger than I had suspected. This was a people's choice sort of award, and beat out sites like Amazon, Motley Fool, iVillage, etc. for top honors. What was amazing is that many of these companies were spending millions of dollars on their sites, and I was one guy working an hour a day on mine. It was remarkable. It also showed that the site had incredibly broad appeal --students, adults, senior citizens, teachers, men and women from all walks of life love to learn about By June 1999 I was getting so much e-mail that I really had to make a decision about the site -- either I needed to do it full time and start a business to handle it, or kind of let it die, because there was lots of stuff happening.

I did quit my job on June 30, 1999, because I knew I wanted to spend lots more time writing. The email from visitors was requesting hundreds of different topics and asking for all kinds of new features. Really the only way to do it involved A) starting a business to generate revenue, and B) using the revenue to find a group of good people to help me.

I was fortunate at this point to hook up with a person named Marco Fregenal to help me start the business. Marco had built an 800-person company and had experience with venture capital, so he was able to come in with experience and credibility. We started the process of building a company.

With the help of Don Reynolds, turned into a corporation --, Inc. -- on Sept. 9, 1999., Inc. is a C corporation registered in Delaware.

We decided that a good path for involved venture capital (see Question 398 for details on venture capital). Finding venture capital was an interesting and extremely educational experience for both of us. I had been president of a successful software development firm, am the author of 10 books and have good academic credentials from my days as an instructor at NCSU. Marco had successfully built a large venture-backed company and had great credentials as well. Our search for venture capital took us all over the country. Each person we would visit would talk to us about our ideas and give us new things to think about.

In order to talk to investors about, we created a business plan. The business plan describes what we hope to accomplish as a company, and also contains a detailed financial model (in the form of a large spreadsheet) that shows how we will spend money, how we will make money, how we plan to hire people over time and who we will be hiring when, and so on. It also contains predictions about things like the number of visitors each month, how much space we need, how much things like hardware and Internet bandwidth will cost, etc.

A financial model like this is a prediction, or a guess, at how things will go in the future. For example, our model indicated revenue from two sources:

  1. Ads and sponsorships
  2. The sale of products (eCommerce) and branded products
It has to accurately predict how many people will come visit the site, how many pages they will read, how many customers we will have, how much they will buy in terms of ads or products, how much they will be willing to pay, how much profit we will be able to make from each sale, and so on. Obviously it is not possible to be exactly right on everything because it is a prediction, but the idea is to be close. Each month at our board of directors meetings, we true up reality for the month with our model and then adjust our assumptions and predictions accordingly.

Over time, the business plan changes. For example, today the company makes money from a variety of sources including: has had four rounds of Venture Capital funding along the way.

The Technology
When I started, I hosted the site for $30 per month through
Verio Web Hosting, a company in California that hosts hundreds of thousands of Web sites. It worked remarkably well, by the way. As the traffic grew and we wanted to do more and more stuff with databases and software, that approach obviously had problems. So, shortly after getting our funding, Scott (our CTO) and Igor Brezac (our VP of Technology) set up a suite of servers for us here in Raleigh.

Our goals for the server infrastructure include:

  • A desire to make the site as bulletproof as possible. We want the site to be able to continue operating regardless of what happens with the hardware and software.
  • A desire to have enough capacity to handle large traffic spikes. If our traffic were to suddenly surge significantly above its normal level, we want to be able to handle it without difficulty.
When you try to access a page from, the request first passes through a load-balancing switch, which dispatches the request to one of three identical Web server machines. These three machines are Sun Netras, known as "The Twins." (We started with two, but have expanded to three as traffic has grown.) With three, any one of them can fail and we still have plenty of capacity with the remaining two while the failed box gets replaced.

The Twins each have a small hard disk that holds the operating system, but they get the Web pages that they serve up from another machine called the High Availability File System. The HAFS can survive almost any hardware or software failure and keep delivering files. The HAFS contains a single image of the site, so once you make a change there, all three of the twins display exactly the same thing.

We have another machine that is our database machine. This machine is a Sun Ultra 60 with dual processors and 512 megabytes of RAM. Most of the pages that the twins serve contain code written in a scripting language called PHP. The PHP code will typically request information from the database to fill out the page. For example, when you look at a page in the HSW Suggestion System, all of that information is stored in the database and PHP code extracts it and assembles the page that you see. The database machine is quite robust, but if the database machine were to fail for some reason, the Web servers are smart enough to switch over to a static version of the site so that visitors can still read all of our articles. The static version of the site is updated daily.

There is also an Ultra 60 that acts as our e-mail server, handling both incoming and outgoing e-mail as well as newsletters for the company. Finally, there is a test machine that we use to test pages and code before they appear on the live Web site. Its setup is a mirror of the production setup.

What Do I Do Today?
As you saw earlier, there was once a time when was me -- one person doing something I love to do. As the company has grown my role has changed, but in some ways it is no different than when I started writing the first article. Some of the things that I do on a daily basis include the following:

  • I spend a good bit of time making public appearances and discussing the site with reporters, which is something I love doing.
  • I record radio vignettes for the radio show, and film spots for TV.
  • I spend a lot of time talking to and emailing people who visit the site. You and the other visitors who come to each day are a great group of people with tons of ideas and thoughts on improving the site.
  • I spend a great deal of time with employees. I interview many of the employees we hire, and I work with new employees so they have a crystal-clear view of what is about, what we are trying to accomplish, what we are doing to make the site fascinating and fun, etc. I work with the writers, artists and editors to decide on what articles we are working on, how they will look, what they will contain and so on. The content team and I work together at least two hours just about every day of the week.
  • I write a great deal, and a lot of that writing now involves traveling to really neat places. For example, to do the article on Champ Cars, I was able to go to two races with the Motorola PacWest Racing Team so that I could meet everyone, understand the car, etc.
  • I work with the senior management team every day to help keep us on track and headed in the right direction.
The team at is great -- we have a lot of fun, and what we are doing is exciting. Our entire focus is on making the site the best place to come to when you want to learn about all of the amazing things that surround us today.

Who Visits
The thing that makes so amazing is people like you. Millions of people like you from all over the world come to learn about how stuff works. If you look at statistics for, you see that it appeals uniformly to people of all ages, both men and women from all walks of life. It's a great group of people! The following graph shows you one age distribution for people who visit

The age distribution for Visitors

Visitors are about 65% male and 35% female. Every day the Survey of the Day asks a different question -- You can gain some additional (and extremely interesting!) insights into the readers of by looking at the Survey Archive. Other common questions:

  • How many people visit had just over 3 million unique visitors in the month of December 2001. See How Cookies Work to understand how we arrive at that number.

  • What are the most popular articles? If you look at this page, you will see a list of the top 40 articles and the top 40 questions of the day.

  • What type of people visit There are many different reasons for a person to visit Here are some of the most common types of people in the audience:
    • Curious people - people who simply love learning how everything works, or who want to understand how something they use every day works.
    • People who are buying something - If you are buying something like a digital camera or a GPS, it is nice to know how it works (as well as the features and options) so that you can make a good buying decision.
    • People changing jobs - If you are changing careers or changing roles inside your company, you will often need to learn about something new in the new job.
    • Journalists - Journalists and reporters come all the time when they are working on stories.
    • Teachers/students/parents - is a great place to come for help with reports, science projects and homework.

I think that one of the reasons people enjoy is that people are by nature curious and love to learn about things. If you go look around your house or apartment, you will find that you are surrounded by all sorts of technology. Just think about it -- you probably have a telephone, a TV, a video tape player, a refrigerator, a microwave oven, a car, a computer... It's everywhere! And it feels a lot more comfortable to know how it all works. Think about walking into a room full of 20 people you don't know, and compare that to walking into a room full of 20 people you know well. It is completely different. It's the same way with all of the stuff that has become a part of our daily lives -- it feels better to know what it is doing and how it works. It is also fun to realize how simple most of it is!

People like you drive this site with your suggestions and ideas. For example, thousands of people visit the suggestion area each day to offer ideas and vote on new topics. I also really enjoy all the email I receive because it helps me to see the site through your eyes. If you would like to make comments yourself, you can send mail to me at

The Future
A very common question to ask is, "Where is going in the future?" This is one of the most exciting things about HSW being a company rather than one guy -- with a good group of people focused on the same goals, it is amazing what you can accomplish. Here are some of the things that we have in the plan:

  • One obvious thing is the expansion of the Web site. The group of writers and artists who work with me on the site today is outstanding. The goal is to write lots of new articles, and to continuously improve the existing articles. I am also very interested in expanding the type of articles we create.

  • is moving toward other media -- We are on the radio, on TV, we have two books and a magazine. That trend will continue

  • I will admit that a theme park is a dream right now -- we will have to grow a bit before it is something we can start up, but it still is a cool idea...
Over the next year, will grow in amazing and incredibly exciting ways -- and you will be able to watch it happen!

One thing I would like to say to you before closing is "Thank you." Thank you for reading the articles at, and thank you for telling your friends about the site. The process of friends telling friends is what has made so popular, and I truly appreciate it.


Marshall Brain