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Andrey Ternovskiy, creator of Chat Roulette, just might be sitting on the hottest Internet property since Facebook was founded five years ago. But he's not American. He's Russian. And that's putting him smack in the middle of some powerful forces. On the one hand, Russia investors backed by the Prime Minister himself are egging him to stay. But the freedom and riches of America might just draw him away.
That tension is outlined in the first profile of Ternovskiy to appear, published by German daily Der Spiegel. Just check out this amazing scene, in which Yuri Milner—a Russian investor with a net worth is around $680 million and who's Facebook's largest overseas backer—tries to entice Ternovskiy:
Milner and Ternovskiy talk for an hour and a half. The multimillionaire would like to go into business with the teenager, who hasn't been to school in weeks and is on the verge of being expelled because of his truancy. After all, Ternovskiy is a businessman now. Milner wants to buy 10 percent of Chatroulette. He wants Ternovskiy to name his price but the teenager simply strings the entrepreneur along.
And the stakes, of course, are international in scope:
...The combined value of Google, Microsoft and Facebook amounts to roughly $500 billion, or about a third of the Russian economy's annual output. So if Russia—which has more than 50 million Internet users and boasts one of the fastest-growing markets—hopes to catch up, then it will need to keep talents like Ternovskiy at home.
But Ternovskiy doesn't sign with Milner straight away. He wants to think about Milner's offer first. How much is his idea really worth? Some estimates put it at worth somewhere between €10 million and €30 million. And should he join forces with a Russian business partner or with an American company?
The profile has a few fascinating tidbits—Ternovskiy is busy trying to keep "freaks and fuckers" off the site. And the pictures are priceless—the fresh-faced tyke as he grins in a bedroom filled with empty bookshelves, or out in front of his grim Soviet-era housing complex.
But more troubling for Milner and Russia, he's planning on at least visiting America to hear out investors. "The Internet is my world. It connects Moscow with the West," he says. And he's always dreamed about owning a Silicon Valley start-up.
There's been lots of talk that American is on the decline, because we no longer draw the smartest young immigrants. But it's telling that Ternovskiy's dreams seem to be drawing him here.
While ChatRoulette may seem like a goofy gimmick for one-handed-Web-surfing pervs, there's no reason it can't become something mainstream. French Connection already uses it for marketing. (Why couldn't product designers and marketers sit down for random interviews? And why shouldn't ever fifth "next" be an ad?) Moreover, as our intrepid Dan Macsai suggests, ChatRoulette opens up a whole new world of Internet socializing. Which actually sounds a lot like Facebook, right? You could imagine all sorts of silos, from dating to random conversations, filtered by topics or interests. But Ternovskiy will need the right business partners to make sure it doesn't suffer the fate of MySpace instead.