WALNUT CREEK, Calif. – You walk into a club and, instantly, hundreds of brains begin computing where you fall on a scale of 1 to 10. No need for guilt or offense. It’s as subconscious as blinking.

On a recent trip to the Bambuddha Lounge, however, this silent guilty pleasure became a bit more public. Hotornot.com, the Web site for ranking desirability, converged on the San Francisco hot spot – camera, scrolling video, and all.

No sooner than you flashed your I.D. was your photo, and your score, splashed on the entryway.

“5.5?!,” said a less-than-pleased, svelte Asian twentysomething, before spinning on her patent leather go-go boots and heading to the bar. There is no logic, for beauty is in the eye of the clicker.

While hundreds of start-ups rest in peace, Hotornot continues to thrive. In its five years, 11 billion votes have been cast on the site, and 20 million photos have been uploaded for judging.

The co-founders, James Hong and Jim Young, both 32, threw the all-expenses-paid bash in October at the Bambuddha Lounge to celebrate. It’s been a long road for the childhood friends, from Taiwanese summer camp to write-ups in national magazines.

“It’s a real accomplishment that we’re around and doing so well,” says Hong, surrounded by beauties and sporting a large gold dollar sign around his neck.

Their story is no different from other computer geek fairy tales. In 2000, Hong and Young were living with Young’s parents. Young was pursuing the Ph.D.-that-would-never-end. Hong, a high-tech businessman, was unemployed.

One night, the guys, regulars on the South Bay party circuit, headed to a get-together where Young was eager to show Hong a girl he was convinced was a “10.”

“I didn’t see any “10s’ that night,” Hong recalls, not sure whether he ever spotted the girl. Somewhat drunk, they debated it some more, and an idea was born. Back at the house, the two engineers began brainstorming.

“Because it was Silicon Valley, we had a whiteboard in the living room,” Hong said, laughing. Within three days, Young had built the basic site – one page to submit photos, another one to rate them and a third to keep score.

Hong checked it out that weekend, while visiting his folks. Bad move, he says.

“My 60-year-old Asian civil engineer dad was looking over my shoulder, obviously displeased,” said Hong, who graduated from Monte Vista High School. “Here I was unemployed and tinkering on this site, when I should’ve been looking for a job.”

Hong and Young sent the link to friends, and by the end of the day, 40,000 people had visited the site. By the end of the week, Hotornot received 1.8 million page views. To increase traffic, Hong went rollerblading in the parking lots of major Silicon Valley companies. “Hey, have you heard of that Web site, Hotornot.com?” he’d ask people, innocently. Before long, people were asking Hong the same question.

Within a few months, David Letterman was talking about the site, and articles popped up in Playboy, Business Week and Entertainment Weekly. Shortly after, Hong and Young launched Meet Me, the interactive component of the site.

More casual than online dating, the feature is a way for like-minded hotties to meet up. Today, the Meet Me service, which costs $6 a month, boasts 600,000 members. At least one marriage is reported to the site every day, Hong says.

The site’s motto is “fun, clean and real,” so they’ve avoided pop-ups and have enlisted thousands of volunteers to moderate the site and keep it free of nudity and other questionable content.

In 2003, Hong and Young moved out of mom and dad’s and into their current office in downtown Berkeley, Calif. The open space is littered with beach balls, video games and odes to “American Idol” anti-hero William Hung. The co-founders don’t have desks, but their four employees do.

These days, the entrepreneurs are busy deciding which way to take the business: They rate people, so why not cars or movies? Whatever it is, it’ll most likely be hot: It is estimated, according to Hong’s market research, that more than half of America’s 18-24 year-olds have been on the site.

“How many hours of corporate America’s time are we wasting?,” Hong asks, joking. “How many dollars are not being made so people can tinker on Hotornot?”

Blog on way

To keep traffic up, Hong plans to start a blog soon. He’s also happy to report that his father approves of his endeavor. The turning point? An overseas cousin spotted a story about Hong in Taiwan FHM magazine.

Dad probably didn’t mind seeing another successful Web entrepreneur, Sergey Brin of Google, on his son’s site. Brin, a friend of Hong’s, scored a 9.2 for a come-hither shot of him in a Speedo.

Where do Hong and Young fall on the hotness scale? Truth be told, neither ever scored above a 4. Until recently. Hong added a “Meet James and Jim’ section to the site. It chronicled their rise to fame, showed off their goofiness, and penchant for tequila and reality TV. Hong’s new rating? A whopping 9.5.

Guess there’s some truth to that whole personality thing.




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