A Widget Mogul in Between Classes

Ankur Nagpal, a 19-year-old UC-Berkeley student, finds the keys to viral success and rakes in the cash on Facebook

Most of Ankur Nagpal's classmates have no idea just how much money he's been pulling in from creating Facebook "quiz" applications such as "Which Friends character are you?" or "Dr. Phil's personality test."

Over the past four months, the 19-year-old sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley has made more than six figures creating more than 70 personality quizzes for Facebook. "The kids know that there's some money involved but I've kept it fairly low-key as far as the actual money," says Nagpal, who declined to give an exact figure. He's using the money to pay for college, but hasn't bought a new car or any other pricey items that might give away how much he's earning.

Nagpal's ability to make money from personality quizzes stems from Facebook's decision last year to let outside software developers create applications for the online social network. As an incentive, developers get to keep 100% of the revenue from any ads they sell to display within the assorted games, videos, and tools they create for Facebook users to embed in their profile pages.

Since the floodgates opened in May, 2007, nearly 17,000 Facebook widgets have been introduced. Some have spread like wildfire across Facebook as users pass them on to friends. Nagpal has mastered this art of creating viral widgets, enticing members to share his quizzes with friends. Users have installed his applications millions of times. About 2.5 million people have taken his "What color are you?" quiz, for instance.

Not Everyone Strikes It Rich

Nagpal has generated income, in part, through ads that run alongside his quizzes. Almost all of them come from an ad network called Social Media Networks, an arrangement that Nagpal says has worked "absolutely brilliantly." He's also sold about 25 quiz applications for prices ranging from "a couple hundred dollars to about $40,000 and everything in between," he says.

It's safe to say that a very small fraction of the programmers developing Facebook widgets are striking it rich like Nagpal. "There are applications that appeal to smaller audiences and they're not making thousands of dollars per day. They're making $10 or $20, enough to buy a meal," says Seth Goldstein, co-founder and CEO of Social Media. "But there are some developers that are making lots of money. They've perfected the application development and they understand the viral channel."

That formula can be elusive for even the largest brand marketers. It's certainly not always evident what will catch on, even to those who toil away in the trenches building them. "What you think will go viral probably will not, and what you think won't go viral probably will," says Jing Chen, co-founder of Developer Analytics , a new company that's developing tools to measure how viral an application's distribution has been. Developer Analytics, which rates Nagpal among the top 20 Facebook developers, has asked him to join its board of advisors.

Roommates Share in the Wealth

It took some trial and error before Nagpal struck viral pay dirt. Last July, not long after Facebook opened up to developers, Nagpal said he decided to create a fantasy cricket game. He worked on the game every night for nearly two weeks after he got home each day from his summer job at Amazon.com (AMZN). "While [the cricket game] never reached the degree of success that the other applications did, it did teach me a lot about the Facebook platform as to how people are willing to spend their time online," he says.

Between July and September, Nagpal created four more applications. But it wasn't until October that he developed his first personality quiz, named "How good a lover are you?" Within two weeks that application had gained more than 400,000 users. "As soon as I hit the personality quiz genre, things really exploded," he says.

Having stumbled upon widget gold, Nagpal created a personality quiz factory of sorts, developing more than 75 of them in just four months. Yet Nagpal himself is not a fan of personality quizzes. "To this point, I still haven't installed any of my applications myself because I just don't like the idea," he says. In fact, as he's a bit embarrassed by them, Nagpal doesn't put his name on his quizzes, so most people aren't aware they're his. But his roommates know that better than anyone, as they've supplied the content for about three-quarters of the quizzes. In return, Nagpal says he's given them a share of the profits, paying them tens of thousands of dollars.

So, what does Nagpal know about creating viral applications that major brand marketers still need to learn? It's all about helping people hook up, he says, using a more colloquial term. You'll be on the right track "as soon as you realize that people come online not to have a serious intellectual debate. Those happen but not that often," he says. "It's more about something that gives them instant gratification."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.